Submitted by Amaury Tapia
“I had never experienced anything like it,” said Erica Arizmendi of Essex. “The whole community was scared.”
Arizmendi works as a registered medical assistant at a family clinic in central Vermont. The initial experience of seeing her small practice overflow with COVID-19 patients is still fresh in her mind.
“Watching the news, trying to be up to date with any changes, constantly trying to take care of myself and do what I could not to infect anyone—it was overwhelming,” she said. The pandemic took a toll on Arizmendi emotionally and physically. She had her first panic attack in April 2020.
“I remember my husband picked me up after work,” she said. “He was talking, and I couldn’t focus. I just cried for 15 minutes. I couldn’t say anything. I couldn’t express it.”
Anxiety attacks became the new normal for Arizmendi. She wasn’t alone. “My colleagues were going through the same thing. They would start crying in the middle of clinic because they couldn’t really handle the workload.”
While the devastation of a global pandemic has touched most people’s lives, the pressures faced by frontline healthcare workers have been unique and immense. The rapid increase of cases day-by-day, the shortage of medical personnel and the emergence of new variants have culminated in a heavy burden on many medical professionals.
People of faith working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 crisis, such as Arizmendi, are not immune to the mental distress; however, many found that their faith has proved to be a powerful means of coping. Jonathon Thereault of Hyde Park, Vermont, is a helicopter medevac in Burlington.
“It’s physically draining and mentally exhausting,” he said. “There were times that I just sat in the parking lot at work for a half an hour, just feeling like, I don’t want to deal with it. I just don’t want to go in.”
For Thereault, the mental load was the most difficult part. He struggled with what he calls “compassion fatigue.”
He said, “No small number of the COVID-19 positive patients I’ve transported have since died. Watching the impact on the patient’s family and thinking about the risk that we incur doing the job while trying to maintain a high level of caring is hard,” Thereault continued. “A lot of people say, ‘this is what you signed up for.’ But this isn’t what we actually signed up for. This is a once in a generation, or a multiple generation pandemic.”
Prayer and meditating on what he has learned from his study of the Bible has proved to be an anchor for Thereault. “As students of the Bible, we’re encouraged to view the world through a spiritual lens. When you do, it is heartening and incredibly grounding. It brings down the anxiety level because it reminds you of the bigger picture.”
Thereault’s wife also works in the medical field. They both find time to rest. “We make sure that we pause for a little bit”, he said, “even if it’s just staying at home and sitting in front of the fire at night. It gives you time to reset.”
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.”
“I don’t think others in the community really understand what the medical fields are going through,” said Arizmendi. “We see a patient every 10 minutes.” She started to feel the same stress level as last year as numbers climbed again recently. Her panic attacks started to increase. “I knew it was time to lower my work hours,” she said.
After changing her work schedule, Arizmendi said she doesn’t have panic attacks or chest pain as frequently as she used to, but it took a long time to start the healing process.
Before she starts her day, Arizmendi reads a short portion of the Bible. Then, she meditates on how it applies to her. Finally, she ends by saying a prayer. She credits this spiritual routine with getting her through her day. “It’s kept me alive,” said Arizmendi. “There were times I did feel weak and tired because I was so emotionally drained. My spiritual routine revived me.”
She also attends weekly congregation meetings over Zoom. “It feels like a little family,” she said. “They are very loving, always trying to consider what they can do to encourage one another. Throughout the pandemic, we received cards in the mail from many of them just saying ‘hello.’ That was something special.”
Editor’s note: this account of the struggles of Vermont frontline pandemic workers was submitted yesterday by the Publication Office of the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the United States of America.