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Caring for Those Who Provide Care: Frontline Workers Receive, Need Support
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
10:46AM / Tuesday, April 07, 2020
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A makeshift sign that recently appeared at the junction of Carpenter Hill Road and Monument Avenue, which leads to Bennington's Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Any death in a facility like the Williamstown Commons nursing home hits home for the caregivers who make the facility possible.
 
The 10 recent deaths in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic have been particularly painful.
 
"For folks who work in nursing homes, this is where [the patients live]," said Lisa Gaudet, a spokesperson for Berkshire Health Systems, which operates the 180-bed facility. "These staffs have a lot of relationships with these people. They know their families. They know their histories.
 
"It's also very hard for the families who can't go in and be with their loved ones."
 
And when deaths occur in a time of "social distancing," the mourning process is interrupted.
 
"Typically, without this virus, that would absolutely be happening," Gaudet said. "Staff members often attend wakes and funerals. Families come in after wakes and deaths and often visit staff, thank them. There are hugs and tears. It's very meaningful work.
 
"The virus has changed the profile of that for us right now."
 
A recurring theme in the national conversation around the novel coronavirus has been the emotional toll it has taken on doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals who deal both with the stress of trying to beat the virus and the fear that they will be infected themselves or spread it to their loved ones.
 
Gov. Charlie Baker mentions the heroic work of front-line workers at every opportunity. City halls and landmarks from Boston to San Francisco have been lit with blue lights to show solidarity for health care workers. The hashtag #WorldHealthDay trended strongly on Twitter on Tuesday as millions of users joined the initiative of the World Health Organization.
 
Locally, Berkshire Health Systems has seen an outpouring of contributions from individuals and businesses, according to a different spokesperson. And the Facebook group "Mask Makers of Berkshire County" sprang up on March 22 to unite the many area residents creating homemade masks, some of which will end up being used by workers in the field. A vehicle parade Saturday at the Vermont Veterans Home in Bennington drew hundreds of cars, trucks and motorcycles, many with signs thanking the facility's staff.
 
All that support, no doubt, is appreciated. But there are reasons to be concerned about the emotional health of those front-line workers.
 
Nurses already have succumbed to the disease in hot spots like New York City and New Orleans. In Europe, two nurses' suicides in Italy and the United Kingdom have been linked to the pandemic.
 
Locally, there are no reports of anything that dire, and officials are working to make sure they do not occur.
 
"We're in a little different position in a rural area than the metropolitan areas where they're seeing that spike and influx," said Dr. Trey Dobson, the chief medical officer at Bennington's Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.
 
"But it's certainly affecting our staff. They're not experiencing burnout from work at this moment. But we anticipate and work to prevent it as much as possible."
 
Dobson late last week talked to iBerkshires.com about his facility's efforts to provide emotional support for its staff.
 
"What we are seeing is anxiety and stress from staff like never before," he said. "Our strategy is to acknowledge that, talk about it frequently. Doctors talk about it. Nurses talk about it. Talking about it brings awareness."
 
Dobson called staff support the hospital's No. 1 priority, and it is the first topic at daily incident command meetings.
 
"We have to have each others' back," he said. "If we can't keep ourselves healthy, we can't take care of the community."
 
Dobson said SVMC does have internal and external resources available for more formal counseling, but the informal discussions are key.
 
"We're all in this together," he said. "It's not easy, and there is no shame in talking about it. In fact, that's what helps us get through it.
 
"I tell people where I'm struggling, and that's not typical in a crisis to have an incident commander talk about it."
 
Neither Dobson nor Gaudet last week reported any shortages of staffing because of the pandemic.
 
"If you work in a hospital or a nursing home or assisted living, these workers are fearful, understandably so," Gaudet said. "They don't want to bring [the virus] home to their loved ones. We've done a lot in terms of educating them and trying to help allay those fears."
 
And the staff at Williamstown Commons also has received outside support, she said.
 
"We're fortunate that we've had organizations like Hospice Care of the Berkshires provide a lot of emotional and bereavement support to the team in Williamstown," Gaudet said. "We've had mental health providers make themselves available. That, again, is so valuable when you're taking care of people. It's like taking care of your family. You're seeing them be very, very sick and knowing some of them won't recover."
 
And for those who do not, the mourning period will come, even if it has to be delayed.
 
"When this is all over and done with and we get to the other side, there will be a lot of folks wanting to do things like [wakes and funerals] to memorialize the people who have passed during this epidemic," Gaudet said.
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