Tracey, intensive care nurse

"There's only so much you can write in a journal. We need some meaningful, trauma-informed help so we don't pass this on"

Tracey’s story

My name’s Tracey and I work in a coronary intensive care unit. 

I am in my 34th year of nursing. I absolutely love my job. There is an inherent trust that is provided to me when somebody’s having the worst day of their lives. I can’t think of another job I would love more than the job that I have.

There was this huge evolution throughout the pandemic. Initially, it was people banging pots and commercials that said we support you, we appreciate what you’re doing. We went from that to, within a year, advertisements to tell people they had to behave with respect towards the staff in hospitals, because it was becoming so much more of a confrontational workplace. 

The Canadian Nursing Association, again, at about that 12-month mark, started sending out papers saying our nurses are in trouble. We’re having supply chain issues, we’re having drug issues, we’re having staffing issues. 

Basically, by that point, anybody that could get out, did. Anybody that was even close enough to retirement left. I had friends who, really, it would’ve been in their best interest to stay five more years. They just left. 

You were so physically exhausted and so emotionally exhausted and psychologically exhausted and spiritually exhausted by the time you came home. All I did was basically drink coffee and stare at a wall. I had nothing left. 

Like, where do you start? How do you catch up on three years of lost sleep? How do you catch up in being able to feed your body the nutrition it needs to be able to sleep, to be able to move, to be able to practice any kind of self care?

You aren’t a good partner if you come home and stare at the wall and drink coffee. You’re not a good parent. You are not a good friend. You are not a good mom. You’re not a good daughter. 

All of your relationships are at risk when you suffer from PTSI. Because you pass that trauma on. You pass it on in mentorship — and that should matter.

I remember speaking with a charge nurse on one of the COVID units. She had been practicing for 14 months. She was in charge of a unit in a pandemic, and she said, “I don’t feel resourced for this.” She said, “I don’t feel like I’m a clinical expert at any of this.” And she said, “I don’t know if I’m going to stay nursing. I’m so burned out.”

Many, many, many of the staff on that unit were brand new nurses. It’s absolutely heartbreaking to hear our young professionals speak like that, but they’re speaking their truth. 

Like, what have we done to create a resilient environment? What have we done to give them the skill set that they need to grow professionally? What supports are in place? What mentorship is in place? And there isn’t any. If we can’t make people last two years, how are we supposed to make them last 25?

We need to be really careful about mentorship. Right now, we’re so damaged that we’re passing on our trauma — and we need to care about that. Let’s be really, really clear that the healthcare system was in trouble before there was a pandemic, and we need to take some palpable, meaningful steps on how to address it.

We probably actually need lifetime support. I can’t sit and listen to somebody that tells me, although it is very good advice, you need to eat healthy, you need to sleep, you need to practice box breathing and journaling. 

Yeah, I get it. But I’m a shift worker, as is most of the nursing staff that work in hospitals. So please tell me what that looks like when you’re a shift worker. Please tell me what it looks like to eat nutritiously when we don’t have access to food at the hospital for 14 hours out of a 24-hour day, because they close all of the cafés. Please tell me how I’m supposed to eat properly when I don’t get a break or how I’m supposed to drink enough when I have a mask on all of the time. 

Box breathing, although it’s got some benefits in terms of grounding, we’re so far past that. There’s only so much you can write in a journal. We need some meaningful, trauma-informed help so we don’t pass this on.

You can listen to these people, learn about these ideas. But can you be well in an environment that makes you sick? And I’m not sure I know the answer. We need to fix some of the fundamental flaws in our system, which is absolutely crumbling — now. 

Whether it’s true or not, it feels like we’re disposable. Some of our healing will come out of research to prove how detrimental the environment has been. Hopefully through that, we’ll be able to get more robust help than what is currently available.

A special note of thanks from Healthcare Salute

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, healthcare providers from across Canada have participated in our research on “COVID-19-Related Stress, Moral Injury and Minority Stress in Healthcare Workers and Public Safety Personnel in Canada.” Their struggles, heartbreak, courage, and resilience have inspired and moved us, and formed the bedrock of our research for this project. We are deeply grateful and committed to sharing their experiences.

We would also like to express our heartfelt thanks to our funders, the Public Health Agency of Canada, for giving us the opportunity and the autonomy to share our research with the larger Canadian audience without bias or restriction. This work would not have been possible without their generous and arms-length funding support. We also wish to thank our collaborators and supporters — McMaster University, St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton, Homewood Health, and Homewood Research Institute.

After viewing, visit “Applying cultural competency in practice,” an education module for mental health providers and peer supporters.