COVID-19’s arrival petrified health professionals
Dr Judith Leiba (right), director of child and adolescent mental health, speaking at last week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange. Also photographed are (from left) Nurse Sophia Francis from National Chest Hospital; Associate Clinical Psychologist Keisha Bowla-Hines; and Dr Susan Strachan Johnson, acting senior medical officer of health for the Kingston and St Andrew Health Department. (Photo: Naphtali Junior)

SENIOR health professionals in the public sector say they were petrified when the COVID-19 threat became reality in March 2020 but pressed on with the task at hand as the island was plunged into the depths of a pandemic that all had hoped Jamaica would somehow avoid.

Associate Clinical Psychologist Keisha Bowla-Hines; Dr Judith Leiba, director of child and adolescent mental health; and Dr Susan Strachan Johnson, acting senior medical officer of health for the Kingston and St Andrew Health Department, recounted their personal experiences of fear and determination during last week’s Jamaica Observer Monday Exchange ahead of the start of Healthcare Workers Appreciation Month.

“For me, when the pandemic hit I was kind of frozen initially,” Bowla-Hinds shared. “My first point of call was how do I keep my family safe? What will this mean? And how do I provide the support that will be needed for my patients and the staff members that I support? I started to gather information from sources that were reputable, so I did not look to social media at any point.”

The psychologist said she also held frequent family meetings to ensure that those close to her understood the gravity of the situation and how to manage it. At work, sessions had to be shifted to tele-counselling.

“That was new to us as psychologists across Jamaica, and new ethical guidelines were written up in January 2021 to start guiding us on what some of these new approaches would look like. It was really a very steep learning curve, but we pulled it together and we made it through.”

Bowla-Hines said as the pandemic overtook the country, an increasing number of staff members became grief-stricken.

“The grief was so intense that you could hold it. They were broken and sad. The deaths were coming one behind the other as the months dragged on, and what made this complicated is that we didn’t know when it would end. For some it was quite traumatic and they had to then manage those personal experiences while fulfilling their work obligations. ‘So how do we balance?’ is the question I got most often,” she recalled.

Of note, she pointed out, was not just the palpable fear of death among patients, and them having “unfinished business” with family members, but there was a also a new kind of fear as people in isolation or quarantine realised that they also had other types of unfinished business in their lives that the pandemic had brought to a screeching halt.

“Typically, we tend to think everybody is scared of dying [but] what I saw a lot was some depressive symptoms surrounding non-death losses. The non-death losses were simple things people missed — like being at home in their own bed, getting up in the morning and being able to tidy their homes, missing interacting with their children and family members. That’s where the heartbreak was coming in. They didn’t know when it was going to end, they didn’t know what to expect, so a lot of the preparing had to do with helping them to cope with these uncertainties, to cope with non-death losses, to hold their hands and support them,” she explained.

In Dr Strachan Johnson’s case, at the time she was acting in a new position as regional technical director which made the onset of the pandemic even scarier for her.

“Everybody is looking to you for guidance but the team really supported each other — and that is how we were able to continue and do what we have to do. We have had many instances where we have had scares, the threat of certain conditions coming, but they never came. I was hoping that it wouldn’t come but it came, so we had to deal with it. It was very scary. I had two young kids and elderly parents, and for me I was just really scared about that,” she told the Monday Exchange.

Dr Leiba said she, too, was jolted by the reality of the pandemic after several near misses over the years.

“It kind of hit you that this one is coming and you start to think about your own family and your constituents — the persons with mental illness — and then you start thinking about ‘How are we going to service them?’,” she recalled.

She noted that the creation of a mental health and suicide prevention hotline from as far back as October 2019 proved useful during the pandemic, as this made it possible to reach out to people who were quarantined or in isolation.

Monday marked the start of the inaugural observation of Healthcare Workers Appreciation Month by the Ministry of Health and Wellness. The occasion is to be observed in July annually, with this year’s celebrations focused on recognising the work of health-care workers during the pandemic.

BY ALPHEA SUMNER Senior staff reporter

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