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How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Northeast Ohio nurses

For thousands of front-line nurses, the pandemic was physically and mentally devastating.

PARMA, Ohio — Michelle Brownlee vividly remembers the chaotic pandemic surges. Changing in and out of hot, uncomfortable Covid gear, dealing with double the patient load and limited support staff.  

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For her and thousands of other front-line Covid nurses, the pandemic was physically and mentally devastating.  

“You know, we normally would see about one to two deaths a year on our floor. As normal aging process and end of life, with Covid, within the last two years, we've seen more than 150 deaths on this floor alone,” said University Hospitals Parma Medical Center Nurse Manager Melinda Lakatos, BSN, RN.

At the time, visitors were barred from seeing loved ones, so nurses became their only link.

“They teach and tell you in nursing school that you can’t get personal, but they don't teach you how to navigate a pandemic. And when you're the only source of comfort and the only link between a family and a loved one, you have to get involved,” Brownlee recalled.

“It was a lot of emotional stress on the staff. We supported them with providing them emotional support through our employee assistance program,” Lakatos added.

Michelle Brownlee was one of many nurses who took advantage of mental health resources.  At one point, she even had them on speed dial because the stress of the pandemic was so high.

“Which has been pivotal in us recovering from what we've dealt with, I often tell people, they don't really understand. If you haven't been in this situation dealing with this pandemic, you have no idea the impact it had on us,” she said.

The nursing shortage began long before the pandemic. Covid made the shortage grow larger as one in five healthcare workers left their careers.  

And the reasons are many.

One study found between 17 and 30% of new nurses leave within the first year of work and up to 56% leave within the second year.

Surveys showed nurses cite burnout and high stress work environments as main reasons for leaving. Followed by compensation, benefits, and the rise in violence against healthcare workers. The fact that many nurses are near retirement age also adds to the shortage.

Brownlee thought about leaving, but didn't, thanks in part to supervisors like Lakatos.

“This is my 30th year in nursing, and this is my career," added Lakatos. "And as a manager for 15 years, I think that the staff that I have on this floor is exceptional. Whatever came at them, they took, and every day are working for the care and compassion of the patient. They're just really kind people that work here and all they care about is the patient and how can we make them better."

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