March 11, 2024

Perspectives on the four-year anniversary of the pandemic declaration

RN and Masters’ student, Lisa Alphonsus researches the experience of emergency nurses during COVID-19
Lisa Alphonsus

March 11, 2020, is a date many of us will remember forever. Four years ago, our lives turned upside down. From sports to the economy, entertainment, travel and education, the COVID-19 pandemic affected every aspect of our lives. However, the area it had the most impact and longest-lasting affect was in our health-care system. Health-care professionals overnight became ‘heroes’ as we watched the virus creep our way. 

As an emergency nurse I remember my first shift after the pandemic had been declared. I remember the day I cared for my first patient with COVID-19. I cried on the way home from work that day. 

I knew then that being a nurse through the pandemic would be an impactful event and I decided to devote my Master of Nursing thesis to this topic. 

Throughout the pandemic, research shows increased anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury and burnout in nurses, with many nurses leaving the emergency department, and sometimes the profession altogether. 

To understand and describe the experience of emergency nurses during the pandemic, I conducted a thematic analysis, a type of qualitative research study. After immersing myself in the data, I organized the patterns I found and developed four themes: 

  1. The early pandemic was characterized by fear and uncertainty as nurses uneasily awaited the coming storm. They experienced the anxiety of trying to protect their families from the virus that they encountered every day. Frequent changes to practice and policy left nurses feeling lost as to what the right practice was each day. 
  2. When the first wave of the pandemic hit, nurses experienced profound sadness as they cared for patient after patient with COVID-19, watching patients say their final goodbyes over an iPad, their masks filling with tears. They also experienced sadness as they enforced the visitor policy, finding it difficult to be the ones to tell families that they would not be able to come into emergency with their loved one. 
  3. Nurses felt alone when their families and friends were unable to understand their highly publicized experience of being ‘frontline workers.’ It was also frustrating to be confronted with anger and controversy while all they wanted was to do their job, trying to help. 
  4. The sheer length of the pandemic led to exhaustion and hopelessness as nurses wondered when it would ever end. Short-staffing, a lack of resources, space and support in the later stages of the pandemic also contributed to nurses feeling helpless, leaving them physically and emotionally exhausted. 

This research demonstrates the urgent need for supports for nurses to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic, such as peer-support groups, stress management programs, psychosocial counseling interventions and backing for safe nurse-patient ratios. 

Because patients are only safe and well-cared-for if nurses are safe and well cared for, we must care for the caregivers so that they can give the best care. 

Although my research is about emergency nurses, the findings have implications for everyone. You don’t have to be a frontline nurse to be more anxious than you used to be or feel depression or burnout. So, to all the nurses and to everyone reading this, with the pandemic in our rear-view mirror, I say, now we heal. Now we remember what Winston Churchill said: “Let no crisis go to waste.” So, I’ll end with a few questions: What have we learned from the pandemic? How can we help? How can we help the healers and care for the caregivers? How can we care for ourselves? How can we make tomorrow better than today?