Nurse Jessica Anne Filoteo explains how she maintained good mental health during her redeployment to an intensive care unit
I didn’t always want to become a nurse. Not because I don’t care for people, but because I care too much. Even before I knew the word ‘empath’ and its meaning, I had an inkling that I was one.
Luckily, I found a nursing specialty perfect for me. I work in a cardiac catheterisation laboratory where people having heart attacks get sent for treatment. It’s fast-paced with a quick turnaround. I love it because it allows me to help people without getting emotionally attached.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic caused an influx of patients to our hospital and there weren’t enough staff to handle it. I, along with over 100 nurses, were redeployed to the ICU.
I was aware that, as an empath, being in close proximity to very poorly patients as well as health care staff dealing with trauma was going to put me at risk of compassion fatigue.
These are some of the things I’ve done to keep myself in check:
1. Practising yoga
I’ve been practising yoga for a few years, but it’s only recently that I’ve come to really appreciate the impact it makes on my wellbeing. Focusing on deep inhalation and exhalation in conjunction with different yoga poses has proved an effective method for grounding the mind.
Physically, yoga has improved my strength, flexibility and spatial awareness. In the ICU, most of the patients were intubated and unconscious. They needed frequent repositioning to prevent pressure sores, as well as daily bed baths and cleaning. Musculoskeletal injuries account for thousands of sick days among health care staff, and it’s not surprising considering the kind of physical work we do.
There are countless studies and books about the benefits of meditation. I sought out a Buddhist meditation centre two years ago after a patient died during a procedure I was assisting in. I was deeply affected by his death, but regular meditation sessions helped me come to terms with my feelings and taught me to be more mindful about how I was living.
I had to make a conscious effort to restart a meditation habit during the pandemic because most of the time I was exhausted. Ultimately, meditating not only made me feel more centred and self-aware, but also helped me stay calm and sleep better.
3. Keeping a gratitude journal
When you see very sick people every day, some of whom may just have a few days or hours left to live, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and powerless. On top of that, we’re constantly being bombarded with news about the state of the world. It can be easy to get sucked into an endless abyss of negativity.
Keeping a daily gratitude journal helped me put things into perspective. It was a constant reminder that despite what was going on in the world, there are still a lot of beautiful things to be thankful for. Writing every day made me continue to appreciate the good things in life as well as enjoy the happier days.
4. Spending time in nature
Working in the ICU in full PPE for 12 hours, not knowing what the day would bring, I found myself feeling consumed - trapped in a bubble of fear, sadness, and dying. Taking a long walk or being in the garden reminded me that there is life outside the bubble.
I remember one afternoon I was lying on my yoga mat watching the clouds drift by and I was filled with a deep sense of tranquillity. It was one of the most beautiful feelings I’ve had in a long time. It made me hope that better days are coming.
5. Seeking professional help
During the height of the pandemic, my job was very stressful, and I found myself constantly anxious, exhausted and angry. All these negative emotions were piling up and affecting my work. I remember thinking, this is not the kind of nurse I am, nor want to be.
Though I was hesitant to reach out and ask for professional help, I’m glad I did. Over the course of my redeployment in the ICU, I had weekly sessions with a mental health coach and a psychologist. They helped me process my thoughts and experiences in a methodical and objective way.
Talking about what I was going through was very cathartic. I am happy to say that despite the nerve-wracking ordeal, I got through it a better person and a stronger and more compassionate nurse.
I used to think being an empath was going to be a hindrance to becoming a good nurse, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Being highly sensitive and in tune with people’s emotional wellbeing allows you to manage care better and with more compassion, as long as you take care of your own energy, know how to set boundaries and don’t absorb stress from others.
On top of that, the profound understanding that comes from our intuitive nature, allows us to feel emotions more deeply, making the prospect of helping people and making a difference in someone’s life so much more fulfilling.