Front Line Nebraska Healthcare Workers Are Burned-Out During Prolonged Pandemic

Sept. 17, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Healthcare worker in full PPE, holds paper work, outside a patient room.
After fighting the COVID-19 pandemic on the frontlines for over a year and half, healthcare workers are tired, burnt out, and are now struggling sometimes to keep compassion for their unvaccinated patients. (Photo Courtesy Bryan Health)

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As the delta variant surge continues throughout the country, vaccination rates have actually declined in some areas. Two local frontline healthcare workers share their first hand experiences of battling COVID-19 in hospitals during the pandemic.

In ICU and COVID-19 units, machines pump oxygen to patients, and check for a beating heart. Some patients have a tube in their mouth to help them breathe. Food is served in cardboard or Styrofoam containers. Doors are always shut. Doctors and nurses wear gloves, gowns, and N-95 masks.

"I've had patients compare being in the hospital with COVID-19 to being in jail multiple times," Laura Braymen said. She's a nurse in the COVID-19 unit in Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha.

"We're tired, we're getting burnt out," she said. "Our unit has gone back and forth between COVID-19 so many times, I think a lot of us have just lost track."

Last year, healthcare workers were called heroes. They received handwritten crayon letters of love and support. A yellow and blue painted mural in Omaha says “We Stand Together.” Fast forward to the last few months, Dr. Matt Maslonka said the message isn’t nearly the same. He's a pulmonary and critical care physician at Bryan Medical Center in Lincoln and recently worked in the ICU.

Dr. Maslonka said the mood has changed when it comes to science and healthcare workers.

"It's been a disheartening thing to see, especially with this most recent wave that to this day is still straining our hospitals," he said.

The delta COVID-19 variant has brought more young people into Nebraska hospitals. Dr. Maslonka said virtually all of his patients are unvaccinated. Nurse Laura Braymen notices that too.

"All of the people that I've taken care of, when I asked them if they regret not getting vaccinated, they always say, yes, they would have rather gotten vaccinated," she said.

Dr. Maslonka said some patients in the hospital are combative and in disbelief when they’re told they have COVID-19.

"When you're telling someone you're going to have to go on this mask that's going to push air into your lungs in order for your vital organs not to shut down due to low oxygen levels, but they're telling you that they're fine," he said. "We've had, people say I want to be transferred, because I don't believe I have COVID-19. It can't be this bad."

Dr. Maslonka smiles for a photo. Background is grey.
Dr. Matt Maslonka said it's disheartening and frustrating when he hears from many patients who said they didn't know who to trust when it comes to COVID-19 information. (Photo Courtesy Bryan Health)

Unvaccinated people are 11 more times likely to die from COVID-19 than vaccinated people. And, vaccines are about 90% effective at preventing COVID-19 hospitalizations, according to recent studies from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nurse Breyman said sometimes it’s hard to have compassion for COVID-19 patients who were misinformed and didn’t get vaccinated.

"It's hard to care for someone who simply didn't do something that was so preventable," she said.

President Biden’s recent COVID-19 action plan could expand vaccine mandates to healthcare workers, federal workers, and employers with more than 100 employees. Nurse Breyman and Dr. Maslonka didn’t want to comment about the plan’s specifics, but they stand by the message that vaccines work.

"Unfortunately, things have gotten incredibly hyper politicized," he said. "In an ideal world, public health would be protected from those influences. Yet, here we are."

Nurse Breyman stands in front of a butterfly display in commemoration of the lives lost from COVID-19
Nurse Laura Breyman said she's taken care of more younger patients who don't have any underlying health conditions, but are in the hospital requiring oxygen, which is something she didn't see that much before the COVID-19 vaccine was released. (Photo Courtesy Laura Breyman)

As healthcare workers, they believe all they can do is bring awareness to what they see on the frontlines of the pandemic and reinforce accurate information. They hope people will get the vaccine out of choice to protect themselves and their communities.

Nurse Breyman said she had a patient who was immunocompromised, fully vaccinated, but worked in an office.

"She had some co-workers who didn't get vaccinated. They ended up bringing COVID-19 into the office," Breyman said. "She was supposed to get her third vaccination, which they're recommending for immunocompromised patients. And, she ended up in the hospital with COVID-19.

Over a Zoom call, Dr. Maslonka was asked, "Do you honestly think health care workers are not in the front lines against COVID-19, but rather the last lines of defense against COVID-19?"

"Absolutely. I mean, we are seeing people on death's door all the time," he said. "Before I put a tube down and have someone be put on a mechanical ventilator, I make sure to have them FaceTime their family and talk over a screen since they can't be with them. Because, we don't know if that'll be the last time that they're going to talk to the ones that they love. We are absolutely the last line of defense and at this point in the pandemic, it's an unnecessary area to be in this. This trench doesn't need to be there."

Braymen fears if more people don’t get vaccinated, the pandemic isn’t going to end anytime soon and healthcare workers will be the last lines of defense for a long time.