Medical teams in Israel are experiencing the severity of a crisis previously unbeknownst in the history of the country, at twice the volume of most other civilians. They are emotionally eroded, desperate, exhausted and experiencing multitudes of traumatic events without any time to digest them. At this point we all know that the Coronavirus is here to stay and that as such, medical teams are our most valuable asset in the fight against the pandemic. If we do not take care of them now, they will not be able to continue caring for us for much longer.
Israel is an expert at fighting wars. Unfortunately this country does not lack for experience of wartime, terror attacks and other security threats, and understands what needs to be done in such situations. When canons fire and soldiers are sent to the frontlines of combat, the home-front unites and prays for their safety. The state even guarantees to support their physical and mental health after their return from battle. We at NATAL treat thousands of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to their military service, and know that treatment can only begin once the war is over, and that it is critical it start as close to the time of the incident as possible.
But the war on COVID-19 is different. This is a global pandemic that started almost a year ago, and who knows when it will end. From one day to the next it stretches into a long, complex and deceptive crisis in which there is no ceasefire. The fighters at the front – the medical teams – work around the clock in an inconceivable reality and sustain injuries every day – mentally.
NATAL works in hospitals and offers the medical staff in the corona wards opportunities to unload, consult and share their feelings. Our professional staff accompanies them and hears the stories of crying in the corridors, how impossible it is to forget seeing the faces of bereaved families via computer screens, and their unbearable longing for loved ones. Post trauma is an accurate term to describe their symptoms; they suffer from insomnia, loss of meaning, intrusive thoughts and chronic fatigue. Some even struggle to separate themselves from the tragic events they witnessed and have become burdened with enormous guilt. Everyone describes a reality that is impossible to cope with for a very long time.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, everyone is talking about the mental health impact. The sore legs after a 12 hour shift, the hot protective overalls, the hunger, fatigue and many shifts – are no doubt difficult to pass. However it is the psychological impact, emotional burnout, despair and frustration that are most worrisome to medical teams.
These people, the medical teams are now raising a red flag and we must listen to them. They are the ones who have taken care of us so far, and will be the ones to take care of us in the future too. If they break, if they are repressed in this way for much longer, they will continue to accumulate in their minds more and more difficult experiences and traumatic memories, and thus be unable to provide proper care in the near future.
Just like the consistent counting of how many the virus has killed and infected, the lockdown exit-plans, and financial aid to small businesses, the mental health of these medical teams must become a prioritized agenda item of the corona cabinet to receive its full and due attention.
The state should have already set up a psychological support system for medical teams yesterday; a system of professional intervention that takes place in real-time in order to treat the damage to their mental health as a result of the pandemic. As this state of emergency continues the emotional erosion on medical teams will increase. The damage will intensify and will become too late to reverse.
Supportive workshops, conversations with treatment professionals and team trainings to help identify crisis and burnout among employees – all these things are useful and can help. But it must be an active effort. If we continue to wait and see, Israel will have an additional crisis on its hands, making it even harder to curb the morbidity and mortality of the virus.
If not for the mutual responsibility and basic commitment we have as a society to care for those at the forefront of the war against corona, then at least for the strategic interest of the continuation of an advanced, solid and professional medical system of which we can all be proud.