By KARI LYDERSEN: For Complete Post, Click Here…
The pandemic and staffing crisis have left healthcare workers with invisible wounds.
Minnesota emergency room nurse Cliff Willmeng remembers, during the early days of the pandemic, treating a patient at United Hospital who asked how the nurses were doing. The man was a Vietnam veteran, and Willmeng recalls that he said, “This is your war.”
“I kind of laughed, like what do you mean by that?” said Willmeng, who recalled he didn’t grasp at the time how horrible the pandemic would become. “He said, ‘We dealt with this in Vietnam. You don’t know it yet but none of you are ever going to be the same again.’”
More than two years later, Willmeng, like countless other nurses and frontline workers nationwide, knows all too well how true those words turned out to be.
“The combination of the lethality of the virus and the seemingly total abandonment of collaboration from the management I was under produced anxiety and fear in me I had never felt, never,” said Willmeng, who had worked in emergency rooms and a trauma intensive care unit in Colorado and Chicago. “I was watching nurses sign their advance directives right there at the nursing station, preparing to be intubated and die. It was terrifying.”
In recent years, academics and frontline workers have used the terms “moral injury” and “moral distress” to describe the debilitating combination of anxiety, fear, guilt, shame, anger and betrayal that results when workers like nurses are thrust into life-or-death situations without the resources and support structures to carry out the mission they’ve committed to.
The term “moral injury” was coined by former U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs psychiatrist Jonathan Shay based on his work with Vietnam veterans, as explained in a December 2020 white paper by the National Nurses United (NNU) union. Moral injury involves the “deleterious long-term, emotional, psychological, behavioral, spiritual, and/or social effects” of “perpetrating or failing to prevent acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations in a high-stakes environment,” the paper notes.
Nurses describe deep parallels between the experiences of veterans who are thrust into horrifying conflicts, left to fend for themselves and forced to make painful choices by corrupt or absent leadership — then blamed or punished for their actions.