Since the start of the COVID pandemic, we have all heard, read, witnessed, and unfortunately experienced, a lot of the physical strain and damage the virus has caused, including death. We’ve heard about the mental health issues COVID survivors experience, but what about the family members and caregivers of those COVID survivors? What about their experiences? They can only sit at their loved one’s bedside and pray things get better. Time passes differently for the family than it does for the person who is sick.
During my time in the ICU, what I thought was only about one week was 2 1/2 to 3 months during which my wife and kids had to endure the uncertainty of my survival. My wife had to be my voice and advocate. For those 2 1/2 to 3 months, she had very little interaction with me. We couldn’t talk. We couldn’t hug. We couldn’t make decisions about my care.
She also found herself having to take care of our kids; to be both Mom and Dad. My wife feared she would have to have “the talk,” with my kids; the talk about Dad not coming home. My daughters found themselves having to suddenly grow up and mature. They had to take on responsibilities and care for each other while still maintaining their grades at school. My wife and kids experienced a level of stress like no other. The problem? Such a heightened level of stress, emotional turmoil, and fear just doesn’t go away upon survival of an extreme situation. Life doesn’t simply go back to normal.
According to Dr. Erin Hall, a Clinical Health Psychologist who works in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) at Geisinger Medical Center, about a third of family members of ICU patients experience depression, anxiety, or PTSD associated with their loved one’s hospital stay. The rate of PTSD climbs to over half of family members of patients who develop ARDS (acute respiratory distress syndrome) and require treatment with ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), as a life saving measure; a scenario that some have experienced because of contracting COVID.
There is a clear and evident impact on a person’s mental health which shows a growing need for access to psychological care services, a need more relevant since the start of the COVID Pandemic. ICUs are staffed with a psychologist and social workers to help people cope with the trauma and fears of someone requiring such intensive medical care. They help the family and caregivers, but never seem to have enough staff to handle the need. Support groups are an option for survivors and caregivers, but support for the children of survivors is seldom available.
My family and I were fortunate. The staff psychologist where I was first hospitalized helped my wife. When my health started to decline, she was there to help comfort and ease my wife’s concerns. She continued by addressing my family’s distress over my illness and educating them about how to deal with anxiety. Social workers maintained regular contact with my wife. Mental health care was available during and after my hospitalizations. My family’s regularly scheduled mental health counseling appointments became as important as our medical appointments. My wife and daughters were forced into a new life resulting from my life-threatening illnesses due to COVID. My traumas are different than theirs.
My family members all have varying levels of anxiety. For example, my sister was at the hospital the day I was Life-Flighted to where my bilateral lung transplant was completed. To this day, when my sister hears a chopper flying by, she immediately tenses up and gets extremely anxious. To her, that sound reminds her of the time she thought she might never see me alive again.
My point is this:
COVID not only affects the mental health of the survivor but also that person’s family and caregivers. Surviving tremendous odds is a blessing and true miracle, the aftermath of the experience can be difficult, impacting someone’s mental well-being; not just temporarily, but long term.
For those who were infected by COVID, thank your family and caregivers for the support they have and still provide you. For those who endured extreme circumstances and have physical and psychological long-term issues, remember you did not experience it alone. You dealt with mounting issues, all while trying not to break down and cry under growing concern your loved one may not survive. Let’s end COVID! together!
Rick Bressler is a husband, father, and Veteran of the United States Army, who wants to share his experiences as a COVID survivor to help promote getting vaccinated and wearing a mask. Dr. Erin Hall, PsyD, is the Clinical Health Psychologist of the intensive care unit at Geisinger Medical Center.