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Spiritual focus has helped frontline medical workers battle through the ongoing pandemic

 - Kathy Balkwill, retired registered nurse and resident of Prineville, Oregon, reflects on the stressors that frontline workers are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic.With the omicron variant on the rise, local hospital workers are bracing for added stress in already busy intensive care units.

Kathy Balkwill, a retired registered nurse and resident of Prineville, feels for those on the medical frontlines who are dealing with the challenges of an ongoing pandemic. "It's a tough job right now," she said. "It's really taking its toll on nurses."

Balkwill retired from nursing in 2011 after working for 18 years in hospitals throughout Oregon. She explained that during her time in the medical field, she had never seen anything as emotionally taxing on healthcare workers as this pandemic. "They're working their little hearts out," she said. "I just can't even imagine what some of these nurses and doctors are going through."

As total COVID-19 cases in the state of Oregon continue to steadily rise, many healthcare workers are experiencing burnout—and there is no end in sight.

These are challenges that Bend resident and Registered Nurse Chelsea Gillespie well knows. As she walks through the doors of St. Charles Hospital, Gillespie's anxiety about the night ahead adds to the emotional strain of caring for sick patients. Her 12-hour shift in the ICU begins at 7 p.m.

Training in a cardiovascular ICU after nursing school could not prepare Gillespie for the COVID-19 pandemic.

"I don't think anybody goes into healthcare thinking that they're going to face a pandemic, not in our day and age," Gillespie said. "You don't think that you're going to be faced with this much death."

Struggling to provide a high standard of care with resources stretched thin has taken a toll on frontline workers throughout the past 22 months.

"I don't think that there's a loss of compassion," Gillespie explained, referring to the feelings that she and her co-workers battle. "I think it's the frustration of knowing that we can't provide the care that we're used to being able to provide, but it doesn't mean that the desire isn't still there."

Spiritual focus has helped Gillespie and other frontline medical workers in her religious community battle through the ongoing pandemic.

"I'm just really thankful to have the education that we do," she said about the Bible-based instruction she receives as one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Gillespie regularly attends services virtually and participates in a volunteer ministry. Her spirituality gives her perspective and hope for better times ahead.

Gillespie explained that this understanding has given her a sense of strength to get through these difficult times, and she offers encouragement to others when she can.

American psychological and psychiatric associations, while not advocating or endorsing any specific religion, acknowledge the role spirituality and religious faith can play in coping with distress and trauma.

Lawrence Onoda, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Mission Hills, California, noted some ways spirituality can help, including giving people "a positive hope and meaning toward life, comfort by looking for answers and strength from a higher power, and a collective shared experience of support and community."

Registered Nurse Josie Rodas, who works in the emergency department in Long Island, New York, prays regularly and leans on fellow Jehovah's Witnesses for support. Her family of faith mobilized with texts, cards, FaceTime and Zoom to help her get through the crises and not to give up.

"If they see that I am down, they really cheer me up," she said. "It's because of God and all of their efforts that I have the strength to keep on going."

Rodas finds joy in passing along to others what has helped her. She joins friends online to write or call people in the community with a message of hope from the Scriptures. "It makes me feel good to share positive news amidst all the negative we hear," she said.

Chelsea Gillespie longs for the day when she won't ever again hear the words: coronavirus, COVID or pandemic. Until that time, she reflects on the help she receives to cope.

"I can feel that God has helped me carry that anxiety," Gillespie said. "It's never gone, but he's definitely lightened that load."

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