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Hospitals offer therapy to front-line employees at risk for 'PTSD-type scenario'

The stress of caring for Covid-19 patients at area hospitals has prompted some nurses and other health care workers to seek help from mental health professionals.

Kaleida Health has offered its employees up to 10 free sessions with specialized therapists. Catholic Health and Erie County Medical Center have offered in-house counseling or outside help.

So far, only a handful have taken advantage of the offer.

“I’m afraid that they may be afraid to reach out," said Suzanne Bradley, an infection control nurse and former union official at Kaleida's Buffalo General Medical Center. "People tend to see bad things happen and deal with it and maybe internalize it, and I just hope that people would avail themselves of what’s out there, because this is worse than anything we’ve seen."

“We expect probably far more to reach out," said Denise Fuller, a counselor with Trauma Recovery Network of Western New York, whose staff of 25 volunteer therapists has been retained by Kaleida.

"They really have minimal time to seek support right now, and I think as this starts to wind down a little, we will see an influx of more referrals when people have time to take care of themselves," Fuller said.

“You can imagine that it would be a kind of PTSD-type of scenario," said Cori Gambini, president of Local 1168, Communications Workers of America, which represents hundreds of nurses and other Kaleida employees.

"We definitely saw the need for it, so it was good that they came out with that and we worked with them to get this done, because people need to find a time to do it, and you don’t want people to have any kind of financial hardships from trying to access mental health help," Gambini said.

"As nurses we have dealt with death and dying, but it’s not something you do every single day," Gambini said. "These people that were working in strictly Covid units, especially the intensive care units, you weren’t seeing a lot of (patients) get better. You were seeing more death the majority of time you were working, and that’s something new that we had to learn to deal with."

Karen Swartz, Kaleida vice president of human resources, said Bradley deserves much of the credit for setting up Kaleida's connection with the Trauma Recovery Network.

Bradley's sister, Linda Kocieniewski, is a clinical social worker in Brooklyn and coordinator of Trauma Recovery Network in New York City.

Kocieniewski is also a trainer and therapist in the network's favored method of treatment, called EMDR – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. Bradley brought the service to the attention of the Kaleida management and the local union.

Marcella L. Brimo, the network's Western New York coordinator, said the program works well with those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, not by suppressing their memories, but by making them less vibrant – "like a black-and-white photo," she said.

“EMDR works really fast with acute trauma," Brimo said. "It will take the really traumatic memory part of it off, so the people can not get triggered, not avoid going to work or one of the many symptoms that occur after somebody’s been traumatized."

Catholic Health CEO Mark A. Sullivan said that organization's Listening Hearts program started with almost 40 in-house chaplains and counselors and has brought in about 60 more since the pandemic hit. Counselors are often sent into Covid-19 units.

"If you care for the associates, as we do at Catholic Health, we don’t want to wait to the point of PTSD," Sullivan said. "There’s no limit. They can call these people as many times as they want. We also are working closely with Horizons Health locally. And there’s no cost to our associates at all."

At Erie County Medical Center, spokesman Peter K. Cutler said Critical Incident Stress Management teams have been making the rounds at the hospital since the pandemic began.

"The CISM team members are certified in crisis intervention and stress management skills, which they utilize in support of ECMC’s front-line caregivers involved in traumatic events," Cutler said. "It is a peer response team that helps to normalize feelings and accelerate the recovery process. They are focused on helping healers heal."

“We have a lot of front-line workers as well as 10,000 employees who are managing through this pandemic," Kaleida's Swartz said. "We are focused on trying to give them every opportunity that comes our way to help them through anything that they be struggling with.”

It is valuable "just to have somebody completely removed from it to kind of bounce things off of and talk about it," Gambini said. "There’s nothing to be embarrassed about."

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