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Peter Lougheed Centre staff wait to screen visitors to the hospital in Calgary on April 9, 2020.Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Brianna Sharpe is an Alberta-based educator and freelance writer in Cochrane.

Like so many others whose work has dried up, I’ve been struggling to feel a sense of agency through this pandemic. Looking after my children is undoubtedly my most important job, but there are times I wish I could do more. In contrast, my spouse is a mental health clinician and disaster first-responder for Alberta Health Services; while I’m cleaning up Cheerios, he’s in his element, responding to crises. He’s exhausted and apprehensive of what’s to come but empowered by his pivotal role.

Before COVID-19, our dinner-table conversations would revolve around mental health. Now, we save it for after the kids are in bed, because they don’t need to learn the words trauma or disaster. We debrief the day’s news and case numbers, while keeping an eye on the mental health disaster chasing at this virus’s heels – particularly for health care workers.

Caregivers are constantly told to put their own oxygen masks on first, so to speak. But as hospitals scramble to get enough personal protective equipment and ventilators, that metaphor might sting a bit. Health care workers are staring into a crisis; some are scared, some are bracing, some are running on adrenalin. They’re reading reports out of New York calling hospital conditions “apocalyptic.” We hail them as heroes, but we also need to ask: Who’s helping the helpers?

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Living with someone on the mental health front lines gives me a window into how Alberta is gearing up for this disaster. My husband helped with 2013 flood recovery and is a psychological-first-aid trainer; AHS is mobilizing a host of evidence-based resources for health professionals, from daily mental wellness e-mails to peer networks. But the trauma is only beginning, and there is so much about this disaster that remains unknown.

From the 2013 floods to the 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires, Albertans have always been quick to praise first responders as heroic. Being so close to this disaster’s epicentre, health care workers also wear that mantle now. But this disaster will be different from those geophysical events; the pace seems relentless, the course unpredictable, the end uncertain. It’s hard for health care workers to feel empowered when they are surrounded by question marks, not even sure how to protect their own families.

Many Albertan medical workers also feel powerless in the face of the United Conservative Party’s changes to health care. While our health minister makes headlines for the wrong reasons, they feel even less supported as they navigate a system being challenged in unprecedented ways.

Health care workers are frantically re-learning how to do their jobs, physically separating from their families and writing wills. Adrenalin-filled responses are typical in the early phases of a disaster, says Caroline McDonald-Harker, Mount Royal University professor and faculty at the Centre for Community Disaster Research. But compassion fatigue, exhaustion and distress will follow – particularly as they have to start making unimaginable decisions, such as choosing who to treat and who to leave behind.

Last month, a study authored by two Chinese psychiatrists about the mental health impacts on health care workers in hospitals with patients exposed to COVID-19 was published. The authors looked at almost 1,300 workers in 34 hospitals across China and found elevated rates of depression, anxiety, insomnia and distress; these were most pronounced among women, nurses and those providing direct care to patients with COVID-19. Stressors included the seemingly endless number of cases and deaths, a lack of personal protective equipment, and feeling over-extended and under-supported.

Adapting and responding quickly to crisis helps people develop resilience. Front-line workers usually excel at this, but COVID-19 may stretch their capacities as the months (and overtime hours) pile up. Seeking support is also protective, but if they’re anything like my husband, they’re in this line of work because they’re astoundingly good at putting others’ needs before their own. For some, asking for help will be a new skill.

Despite the trauma, steep learning curves and exhaustion, there are ways to ease the burden. AHS is rolling out a phased response, including a staff helpline which is newly equipped with COVID-tailored resources, and increased peer-to-peer supports. Other organizations such as the Psychologists’ Association of Alberta Disaster Response Network are offering pro-bono psychological services for medical staff and first responders.

The end-of-day debriefs with my spouse keep coming back to agency; provincial resources for health workers are pivotal, but those of us on the sidelines have so much more power to help than we think. We can check in with the front-line staff we know, ask them authentically how they’re doing. We can advocate for a supportive health care system by writing to our MLAs or keeping track of the resources in our communities. We can stay home.

Boston Medical Centre pulmonary and critical-care fellow Lakshmana Swamy recently tweeted a reminder that this is not a war movie. “But it is trauma,” he wrote. “We are not bold heroes of war. But we are bearing witness. No one screams on a breathing machine, but you hear it echo somewhere inside anyway.”

Our helpers need our help; we need to bear witness to their pain, as they do for us.

The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed emergency rooms and changed the way hospital staff work. Nurses from one hospital in Vancouver reflect on how it's affecting them, their colleagues and the quiet tone of anticipation as they await a possible surge in cases.

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