Reeling from Unbearable Weight

Jaclyn O’Halloran RN, BSN, MHA 2021

︎Download PDF

Thinking back to a year ago, my memories are murky, diluted with the heaviness of working on the frontlines of an international pandemic. Like many of my peers in the medical profession, I felt broken, fragmented into shards of a former self, questioning my place in healthcare.

But I did what everyone else did—picked up the pieces and persevered, moving onward hoping I could figure out how to puzzle myself back together. In healthcare the only trajectory is forward, but in simply forging on we do a disservice to ourselves and our patients.

As a nurse you carry things with you all the time like spare change in your pockets. Each coin is a different patient, a different story that left an impression. Prior to the pandemic, I carried many around in my back pocket, some weighing more than others. And it’s not always an experience that you remember. Sometimes all you remember is a look—the distinct emotion a patient was trying to communicate with their eyes.  

During the early months of the pandemic—when everyone first started wearing masks—a mere look is all we could give to convey how we felt. But our eyes told a powerful story of fear, sadness, frustration, resentment and anger. Some days the PPE was a shield to protect us from a harmful virus; other days it felt like it just covered our tears and emotions.  

As the pandemic plateaued and healthcare workers settled into a “new normal,” I realized how much extra weight I had been carrying with me. Carrying fear and resentment is a momentous challenge—one that weighed heavily on my psyche and my soul. Doubt started creeping in, filling the gaps created by fear and anger—and widening them. For the first time in 15 years, I began doubting my commitment to a profession that I previously was absolutely certain I wanted to be a part of.  

For the sake of self-preservation, I made the difficult decision to leave the hospital setting. In the US our healthcare system is dysfunctional at best, and hospitals can actually be toxic, breeding unhealthy coping skills and behaviors. So while many people go to the hospital to mend their broken pieces, I had to leave in order to heal my own broken pieces.

A year ago I feared for our society as we tumbled headfirst into a pandemic with nothing to slow our descent. A year later I fear for our nurses who are carrying an insurmountable weight on their shoulders. Although the world seemingly paused during the pandemic, our frontline healthcare workers did not.

Carrying on implies positive forward motion towards a shared goal. But maybe sometimes we need to stop carrying on, stop moving forward. Our healthcare system carries on despite its dysfunctionality, leaving patients and nurses alike feeling defeated in its wake.

Who will carry nurses when the weight of healthcare becomes too heavy? At some point the healers whom we all relied on so heavily in 2020 will need to be healed. True healing cannot occur by just carrying on. Rest and reflection are needed to sustain the nursing profession. Without nurses, healthcare may be poised for an even greater loss than the one COVID-19 inflicted on us all.