How Columbus health care pros are faring in yet another COVID year — therapy dogs help

Another COVID winter is testing the health care workforce’s resilience.

Laura Newpoff
For Columbus CEO
Buckeye Paws therapy dog Shiloh

At the beginning of COVID-19, employees at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center had a gung-ho attitude about being on the front-line of the health crisis. They banded together to bring new units online, increase bed capacity and adopt new treatments. They were running on adrenaline and, even amid the grimmest of outcomes they’d see each day, there was a sense of excitement because they had the chance to save people’s lives.

Nearly two years later, doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, and even the people who clean the hospital rooms, “are over it,” says Beth Steinberg, staff training and development, health and well-being. The adrenaline that fueled these health care workers in early 2020 has been replaced with exhaustion from working 16-hour shifts, dealing with people who refuse to wear masks or think COVID isn’t real and having to assume the dual role of caregiver and chaplain too often. Add in the political tension and racial unrest that occurred alongside the pandemic in 2020 and the situation became combustible. Many staff members reached a breaking point and some even quit.

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Steinberg, who has worked as a bedside nurse while raising kids and going to graduate school, knew these caregivers needed support. She was part of a multi-disciplinary senior leadership team that came together to create an employee well-being working group that launched a variety of programs, from chair massages and spiritual care to the deployment of small live string orchestras.

The start of the pandemic also created an opportunity for Steinberg and her colleague Mary Justice to roll out the Buckeye Paws program, which had been in progress since the middle of 2019. The program brings in therapy dogs to provide comfort and emotional support to patient care staff, faculty and students. Steinberg’s yellow Labrador retriever Brienne, in fact, is one of the original team members.

Related:Buckeye Paws Program helps Wexner healthcare workers de-stress

“This program offers people brief periods of relief from the reality they are facing,” Steinberg says. “We’ve used the dogs for rounds to go and give staff the opportunity to connect with a non-judgmental, highly trained therapy dog. They can talk, pet or cry with the dog, which often happens.”

Buckeye Paws therapy dogs (Photo courtesy Wendy Pramik)

Buckeye Paws resides within the medical center’s Stress, Trauma And Resilience (STAR) Program. That program has facilitated small groups of employees gathering with counselors to talk about their experiences during COVID, and a dog can be there as a calming presence. The dogs of Buckeye Paws are certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs, and the program follows its guidelines as well as strict medical center policy.

Employees also have been able to benefit from Director of Integrative Medicine Maryanna Klatt’s Mindfulness in Motion program, which has been integrated into the hospital. In response to the pandemic, Klatt and Steinberg worked together to create 30 short videos with mindfulness techniques for hospital employees. To date, they’ve received 32,000 views.

Buckeye Paws and the various programs tied to employee well-being are examples of how health systems across central Ohio have made it a priority to take care of their caregivers during COVID-19. “Employee well-being was well-planned, well-orchestrated and it was strategic,” Klatt says.

Mount Carmel's approach to employee well-being, resilience

Mount Carmel Health System has a four-pronged approach to employee well-being, which has been adjusted to accommodate needs specific to the pandemic.

“Live Your Whole Life” is a whole-person-centered program that provides tools and resources related to mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. It includes a collaboration with CareBridge for year-round, around-the-clock counseling.

The “colleague care” multidisciplinary program brings two peers together who become part of a resilience rounding program. For example, Brian Pierson, the system’s vice president of community health and well-being, is a critical care nurse who is paired with Christie Santa-Emma, a licensed social worker. They developed a relationship with the intensive care unit at Mount Carmel East where they participate in rounding cadences to gather information about the challenges employees are facing and to provide information about health and wellness topics. On the first night’s round, Pierson and Santa-Emma came into contact with 76 employees, only one of whom was getting enough sleep each night. That led to classes being developed around sleep hygiene.

A “healthy living” program offers short retreats virtually or in person with licensed psychotherapists to help employees manage the stress and trauma they face each day. And a “critical incident stress management” program deploys facilitators to help employees who have experienced a trauma at work, such as the death of a patient or colleague.

Pierson says while there have been periods where the number of COVID hospitalizations have declined, health care workers still experience an enormous amount of stress related to the pandemic. “So many people who have suffered from severe COVID have a number of comorbidities that have been exacerbated by the disease,” he says. “When it looks like the ICU numbers are declining, the hospital often is still dealing with these patients who have other problems that have been made worse by COVID. It’s an extra stressor for front-line colleagues.”

Buckeye Paws therapy dog Shiloh

Central Ohio Primary Care provides wellness resources, additional benefits to employees

Central Ohio Primary Care leaders also mobilized to support employees during the health crisis. It rolled out a free subscription to DoorDash’s DashPass because of COVID and is keeping that in place in 2022. Initiatives that were started that continue today include: a free subscription to Care.com and a resources page to help with childcare options, education, physical activity and nutrition ideas and work-from-home and mental health resources for kids and parents. Free identity theft protection services, an employee share program among practices and discounted and free resources for things like gas, health classes and emotional well-being services also continue to be offered.

COPC also provides employees a variety of mental health resources, including apps that help reduce stress and track physical activity along with educational sessions on self-care. A new employee recognition program was launched alongside a campaign to recognize colleagues for acts of kindness. Hiring COVID screeners and creating an upskill training program also have helped the practices operate more efficiently. Employees got a $1,000 bonus in 2020 and those who have been vaccinated this year also have received $1,000.

Dr. Bill Wulf, COPC’s CEO, says health care workers have faced a unique circumstance since the pandemic began. The health crisis has made the home environment more stressful and employees in many other professions can find some peace and quiet when they go to work. That’s not the case in health care. “Our young physicians and staff saw an inordinate number of patients die without their families,” Wulf says. “The stress of this pandemic will take many years to remedy.”

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer.