Houston-area nurses experiencing 'compassion fatigue' amid spike in hospitalizations, staff shortages

It’s no question frontline workers have seen things the average person cannot even begin to fathom, yet this current wave of COVID-19 cases has many in the healthcare industry lost for words. 

In Houston, many residents have lost loved ones but frontline healthcare workers are the ones who are with them in their final moments. 

For people like Kelly Ward, Director of Nursing for Emergency Services at Houston Methodist - Sugarland Hospital, seeing patients near death more often than usual, because of this virus, makes her job increasingly more difficult.

MORE: Houstonians filling hospitals at an alarming rate as COVID-19 continues to spread

Ward has seen her fair share of natural disasters during her more than 20 years in the field but was completely blindsided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Initially, she explains, it seemed like just another day at work.

"Anytime there's a disaster happening, the front line is always there," Ward said. "And the same thing with this, I just figure, you know what we'll get through it. We've gotten through everything else, it's not gonna be that big of a deal, you know."

Things seem to be looking bleaker for nurses in 2021 with the onslaught of COVID-19 patients during the latest spike in cases. 

"I think through every wave, we've seen that patients are getting sicker and sicker," Ward said. "So the thing that's very different about this wave, though, is that patients are a lot younger, it's very difficult to see young adults, not in good situations, and even dying."

Compassion Fatigue 

An ICU nurse we spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous so we will be addressing them under a pseudonym: Tracy, mirrored Ward’s statements saying many of the patients that come to them have more aggressive symptoms but begin to feel remorseful if they are unvaccinated.

"I would say 90% of what I'm seeing now is most patients are very regretful for not getting it," Tracy explained. "They didn't think that it was that serious, they didn't think that it was going to be that bad, because their neighbor had it and was fine or their friend had it and was fine, so they should have been fine." 

RELATED: 'Why didn't I get vaccinated?' ER doc says that's what he's hearing most from COVID patients

Tracy has been a nurse for 10 years, 9 of which were spent working in the ICU.

Tracy says this new wave of cases has been something they’ve never seen before. And with the increasing number of patients getting hospitalized, coupled with staffing shortages, healthcare professionals say it’s become difficult to maintain their compassion.

"There's definitely compassion fatigue because this could have been prevented," Tracy added. 

MORE: Patients sometimes waiting hours for care at Houston hospital emergency rooms overwhelmed by COVID-19

Ward admits there are some patients coming into the hospital with COVID-19, who have been vaccinated but are faring much better than those who have not received a vaccine. 

"I will say that there are still people coming in with COVID that have been vaccinated, and they are very much less ill than the ones that," Ward noted. 

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"Under no circumstances, did any of us say that the vaccine was 100% [effective] that's not true...but the whole idea is to lessen the severity of the disease," Tracy added. "To sit there in a hospital bed, and just for days on end, and not know which way [the virus] is gonna go is agonizing."

"And, you know, we have to watch this," Tracy continued. "And it's not because we don't want to do it, it's because we had an option to get vaccinated; it'd be one thing if we didn't have an option to help these patients, but we did and we have to be okay with their choice."

ACROSS THE NATION: Doctor says he won’t see unvaccinated patients, reports say

Even professionals like Ward, who is in a leadership role and has been through similar catastrophes, says she's still not immune to the stresses and wondering when the pandemic will be over. 

Although with the ongoing battles among state and local powers regarding vaccines and masks, it seems far from it.

"I feel just like everyone else, you know, I'm tired. I'm exhausted, frustrated, [it] feels deflating... how many waves are we going to have?" she said. "It's not helping that, you know, it's such a politically driven issue right now." 

RELATED: Demand for COVID-19 vaccines multiplies as Houston hospitals treat more sick patients

"What’s frustrating is the very same people who refuse to get a vaccine and say they don't trust science would be the very same patients who come in and are the same patients who come in when they can't breathe, and they want science," Tracy continued. "So science isn't good enough to offer vaccines, but science is good enough for everything else?"

Caring for Caregivers 

"Some of the nurses just like they were out, right when they realized COVID was no joke, you know, they were like, I didn't sign up for this," Ward said. "Also, lots of nurses are getting sick, you know, my staff are still getting sick, even though they've been vaccinated, because it's just, they're around it all the time."

"We do the best we can to protect ourselves," she continued. "But that doesn't mean when we go out in the community, people are doing the same thing. You know, so we're at risk, just like everyone else, of getting sick."

Granted, there are things that have affected some of this turnover in the nursing industry that’s uncontrollable yet, highlighted more as a result of COVID-19. For example, the staffing shortage in the nursing industry has been a constant issue but appears to be exacerbated as a result of the virus.

"The nursing shortage has been around for a very long time, way before my time and the problem now is, you know, now, the demand is even higher for nurses, because there are more patients," Ward explained. "It's a lot to care for other people. And sometimes, you know, in doing so, you know, I've seen my staff not eat all day, you know, not going to the bathroom when they need to, because somebody else's needs are always first."

DETAILS: There was a nursing shortage before the pandemic, new COVID-19 hospitalizations are making it worse

The Code Green Campaign is an international organization that helps educate frontline workers under stress on self-care and offers ways to help. According to Fiona Thomas, the campaign’s president, their aim is to provide resources or a helpful ear for all types of first responders by those who can empathize strongly with their struggles. 

"It's an international database of hotlines and that's anything from the first responder, or healthcare-specific resources, you know, people who understand what health care providers do on a day in, day out basis," she explained. "So they can be therapists... you call a hotline, and you get someone on the other end of the line who actually understands what you're going through." 

As a retired paramedic, Thomas understands the struggle healthcare workers are facing amid the new surge of cases and was just as shocked to see how things became more problematic for her peers. With that, the campaign hit the ground running to ensure their resources and assistance is more accessible. 

"We're doing a lot of ramping up of making sure that people have access to resources, we share that we're available to answer emails when people reach out to us that we're on our social media so that people who are private messaging us," Thomas said.

Since the latest surge of COVID-19 cases, the Code Green Campaign has been flooded with calls; most of them involve healthcare workers saying they’re "burned out." And a lot of the workload has spilled over into their personal lives. 

"It's a pure trend of just burnout and compassion fatigue, people aren't able to get time off, they're having to deal with a lot of mandatory overtime," Thomas explained. "And they're having vacation time canceled, or they're getting called in early for vacation, or they're getting called in early because their co-workers are getting sick from COVID, even if they're vaccinated."


"And while those vaccinated co-workers who do get sick are only down for a little bit of time, it's still more time that nurses are going to have to work," she concluded. "And it's frustrating for them because it's time that they have to be away from their family or from their pet, or, you know, just time that they don't get to be by themselves, which is very important, because it's decompression time that they need."

If you or someone you know is a first responder that could benefit from assistance, click here.