When Fatoumata Jaiteh’s head started throbbing and her body ached — symptoms of COVID-19 — she didn’t worry about herself. Her thoughts zeroed in on someone she loved who awaited her at home.
The oncology nurse at USC Norris Cancer Hospital lives with a relative who is immunocompromised. If Jaiteh was infected with the coronavirus, she would put her family member at risk.
She had reason for concern. “That night, when I left work early, I stayed in my room until I got my results — and found out I had COVID,” Jaiteh remembers. So, she immediately reached out for help from Keck Medicine of USC.
Jaiteh had heard about a resource Keck Medicine offers to its front-line health workers. Through the Care for the Caregiver program, nurses, doctors and other health professionals worried about exposing family members or loved ones to the virus could get free housing.
Keck Medicine’s leaders wanted health care workers like Jaiteh to feel comfortable and centered as they walked into what can be a high-stress environment, said Tammy Capretta, chief transformation and risk officer. To ease their burden during the pandemic, the university greatly expanded its Care for the Caregiver initiative. It’s one of many new resources for front-line health professionals that have grown with help from across USC.
“What we all found gratifying is how the expertise of various arms of the university came together to help launch the kind of care we wanted to provide to our caregivers,” Capretta said.
USC caregivers see major expansion of support resources during COVID-19
Keck Medicine had already started building its Care for the Caregiver program before the novel coronavirus hit Southern California. The demands on health workers at USC’s hospitals and clinics are intense because they treat some of the sickest patients in the country.
As the pandemic ramped up that burden a year ago, front-line workers remained dedicated to their critical caregiving roles. But they weren’t immune to the stress and anxiety of the uncertain situation.
“We had workers who were more than willing and ready to walk into a room and care for a patient with a virus nobody understood,” Capretta said. “But they worried about going home to their families.”
To help protect their loved ones, health workers could spend the night in respite rooms at USC Hotel and other sites.
Jaiteh knew a few colleagues who gladly took advantage of the free housing several nights a week to reduce their stress about exposing loved ones to COVID-19. After she tested positive, she connected with the program and got the keys to an apartment the same evening.
After battling flu-like symptoms for a few days, she started to recover. Better yet, her relative didn’t get the virus. Two weeks later, Jaiteh went home, grateful she had a place to quarantine safely.
“Relief is probably the best word for it,” she said. “Since COVID hit, my biggest worry has been passing it on to somebody else, but especially the person I live with. I’ve been really careful and taking measures to make sure I don’t bring anything from outside to home. When I got COVID, that was my biggest stressor, just knowing I could have passed it on. Being able to find a comfortable spot outside of home and not worry about cost was definitely a huge relief.”
Housing and other resources grow for USC front-line caregivers
The free housing program is only one aspect of Care for the Caregiver. Other resources include a new emotional well-being program that ensured health professionals had access to counseling and debrief sessions to talk through challenges. Front-line employees concerned about their children’s education during remote schooling were matched with volunteer tutors from the USC Rossier School of Education for one-on-one online guidance.
Other caregivers worried about not having a will, living trust or other important documents to protect their families, so Keck Medicine leaders collaborated with USC Gould School of Law experts to provide free legal services. USC even launched an effort to encourage USC Thornton School of Music students, alumni and other musicians to send in videos of encouraging songs to lift the spirits of health workers.
“To have such a well-coordinated organization that brought these resources together for our caregivers made it very seamless during the last 52 weeks,” said Marty Sargeant, interim CEO of Keck Hospital of USC and USC Norris Cancer Hospital. “Our caregivers were deeply appreciative that they had access to this support.”
Emotional support services also formed a fundamental component of the Care for the Caregiver program from the onset. These services were provided by faculty members in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, who continue to provide free confidential counseling and support groups to the Keck Medicine community. USC also expanded counseling support to employees through its Center for Work and Family Life. And a new wellness council oversees resources for employees at the Keck School of Medicine, part of a permanent office of wellness to ensure these services continue long after COVID-19 is under control.
“This is a substantial pillar of strength for the organization,” Sargeant said. “What we must do is really maintain this significant strength that was gained through these programs for our people. We can’t stop that.”
Mental wellness remains a top priority for Keck Medicine’s front-line health workers
A primary concern of USC leaders is the mental well-being and resilience of front-line caregivers and other essential workers in the health system.
Health professionals experienced an initial adrenaline rush when they faced a global public health crisis last year. But then they entered an exhausting grind that left many feeling dejected and overwhelmed, said Steven Siegel, a professor and the Franz Alexander Chair in Psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine.
“People had to settle into a new reality, which was hard,” he said. “Then we hit surge after surge, which put them on their last nerve. Sprinting in a marathon takes a toll. You actually run out of energy, resilience and hope.”
He has been heartened to see USC invest in more resources to safeguard their health and wellness. The medical school’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences has expanded from a faculty of 75 a few years ago to 185 experts who can provide counseling and advice to USC employees, among other clients.
If you think you are not supposed to be struggling now, step back, cut yourself some slack and let us help you.
Siegel sees a need for long-term support because the traumatic effects of the pandemic will linger for years. He drew parallels to the HIV/AIDS crisis, in which medical workers similarly faced uncertainty about a new disease with no cure.
“I think it’ll be at least a year before you don’t see the pain on people’s faces,” he said. “They’re going to need time to unwind and come back to normal.”
But that healing process can and should begin now, he added, even as caregivers continue to treat COVID-19 patients. Siegel encouraged health workers and others in the USC community alike to seek assistance.
“If you are having a hard time, it is really OK to both admit that and to get help,” he said. “We are all having a hard time. If you think you are not supposed to be struggling now, step back, cut yourself some slack and let us help you. We are here to help. And we’ll do it with respect and confidentiality.”
Counseling resources help USC caregivers learn coping skills during pandemic
One major source of support for front-line caregivers at USC is the Center for Work and Family Life. This resource for USC employees quickly transitioned last year to providing virtual therapy by video or phone. Counselors also offer debriefing sessions for health workers to relieve stress and talk through traumatic experiences with their peers.
“They have a chance to talk about the emotional and physical effects, and then learn about coping skills,” said Angela DiBlasi, who manages the center’s programs at the USC Health Sciences Campus.
Experts at the center share tips on topics like effective communication, setting boundaries at home and work, grief and loss, and reframing negative thoughts. DiBlasi, who earned her master’s in social work from the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 1990, said the stress of the pandemic has been amplified by other societal challenges, like civil unrest and political upheaval.
“We’re focusing on what they can do to heal from all this and what they have gained from their experiences,” she said. “Some people are happy they can spend more time at home. They’re cooking healthier meals, spending more time with their family and exercising more. In our group debriefings, they are telling us they find strength in their team. They’ve developed such a bond and been through so much, they realize how strong their coworkers are.”
Like Siegel, she emphasized the importance of beginning to address the mental strain of the pandemic now. Some people might find it helpful to talk with friends or a counselor. Others will benefit from a support group or mindfulness training.
DiBlasi noted that the Center for Work and Family Life’s services are free. USC employees can schedule counseling sessions, access wellness resources and receive referrals to other therapy resources. More information is available online, by calling the center’s 24-hour hotline at 213-821-0800 or sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“If you feel stuck, focus on self-compassion and realize this is normal after such a traumatic and stressful experience,” DiBlasi said. “Reach out for help, even if it’s just a few sessions, to get back on track or learn more coping skills.”
How to support front-line health workers during the coronavirus pandemic
As USC’s front-line caregivers continue to care for COVID-19 patients and others in need, Keck Medicine leaders said community members throughout Southern California can do their part to offer support and encouragement.
Offers of gratitude go so far with our health care workers.
“Continue to be vigilant so we can stay on top of this, and make sure to take advantage of the vaccines as they become available,” Capretta said. She also noted that people can send messages of thanks to front-line workers by mail to USC Hotel. “Offers of gratitude go so far with our health care workers. To know they are being seen and appreciated is so powerful.”
USC leaders are cautiously optimistic as more vaccines are distributed and safety measures like masks and social distancing help public health officials gain the upper hand on the pandemic. It has given them a chance to reflect on the past year and the monumental effort by Keck Medicine workers to respond to an unprecedented health crisis.
“This isn’t about one single person — it’s not about a bedside nurse or a phlebotomist or somebody swabbing noses in a tent,” Sargeant said. “It’s about how everybody leaned in together, and that really speaks to the culture of Keck Medicine. I’m so proud to work here.”