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​​When Healers Need to Heal

When stress is high, caregivers can remember their sangha and their practice.

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It was early on an overcast January morning. I picked up the phone to call the wife of a patient who had been admitted to the hospital with COVID-19. Roused from sleep, her voice was groggy and desperate as she answered. She knew immediately it was not good news. My voice faltered.

“Katie*, it’s Dr. Yang. Peter’s breathing is worsening. He needs to be put on a ventilator,” I said. “Please come as soon as you can.”

“Do you think he’ll make it, doctor?”

I held back my tears as I tried in vain to reassure her. “There’s no way to know.”

A nurse who was standing nearby must have sensed my fatigue. As I stood up from the chair, she immediately pulled me into an embrace, and the tears finally came, streaking down my cheeks and soaking my surgical mask. For just a moment we let our guards down, consoling each other before collecting ourselves to return to patient rounds.

The toll on caregivers

Over the past two years, health-care workers have faced seemingly insurmountable obstacles: A virus that quickly ravaged so many communities. Being forced to do more with less as beds filled and protective equipment dwindled. Mourning the loss of patients—and colleagues—to illness. Coping with the public’s waning trust in the medical profession. The exhaustion. The uncertainty. The fear.

Now, as the pandemic continues, we are also confronted with the competing emotions of demoralization and compassion fatigue. Being witness to so many patients’ suffering has depleted our collective energy. Case loads continue to be high; there’s inadequate time to recharge. The uncertainties about our personal safety, ethical dilemmas, and disconnection from friends and family over the past two years have even convinced some health-care workers to resign. One veteran nurse who quit last month—two years before her planned retirement—told me, “I can’t be in this state of endless crisis anymore. It’s too hard on my nervous system.”

Tapping into the spirit of sangha

Medical professionals are accustomed to stress and hard work. In February, I worked 24 out of 28 days in the hospital as we swept up the pieces of the Omicron surge. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. But that kind of schedule has physical, mental, and emotional repercussions. The weight of this pandemic poses a serious risk to our health and well-being.

While there is reason for hope as infection numbers decline, important questions remain: How can healthcare workers recover from the trauma of the past two years? How do the healers heal themselves?

There are no easy answers, but the only way to do it is to do it together. We tap into our community—our sangha—and ask for reassurance when we need it. We embrace each other when we see the fatigue in one another’s eyes. We allow others to hold us up when we can no longer stand on our own.

Bringing yoga practice to medical practice

A few months ago, during our daily morning huddle (when the night team meets to hand over the hospital patients to the day team), I started leading a 3-minute stretch session for the group. We don’t have much time, but we stand together and move our bodies in sync, linking breath and movement. We stand in a circle, make eye contact, and for a few brief moments, we connect to each other as humans. We remember that we, too, are vulnerable, just like our patients. Last week, the charge nurse told me these sessions have hugely boosted morale: “It’s just a little reminder to take care of ourselves; that we need self-care too.”

So how can we spark that joy within our hearts again? Remember, it’s not all bad.  A report on caregiver stress from the federal Office of Women’s Health says, “Although caregiving can be very challenging, it also has its rewards. It feels good to be able to care for a loved one. Spending time together can give new meaning to your relationship.”

We must embrace our purpose and the privilege behind this work. We can rediscover those feelings again through our bodies.

Healers find joy and hope

In life, there are things we can’t remember and things we simply can’t forget. When all is said and done, the moments we do recall are those that we experienced when we allow ourselves to embrace joy. Even in those dark moments when all seems lost and everything feels heavy, joy and hope are always available when we seek it.

Last week, I walked next to Katie as she wheeled Peter out of the hospital. Katie turned to me when we got to the exit and said, “I can take it from here, doc. But, my family wants to thank you for taking such good care of Peter this last month.”

She handed me a thank-you card, covered in glitter and signed by her entire family. It included a crayon drawing of me in a hero’s cape, drawn by her 4-year-old granddaughter. That drawing now lives on my refrigerator.

Remembering that we became healthcare workers because we found joy in our work and hope in our connection with others can allow us to celebrate the wins and survive the losses. Together, we can evoke hope and joy again.

*Names have been changed to protect patient’s privacy.

To practice with Ingrid Yang:

6 Stress-Relieving Stretches for Caregivers

A Sequence for (Re)connecting to Your Heart