As a physician assistant working in oncology at a multiple myeloma center in New York City, Alex Kaiser gives us a glimpse of what it's like to be a healthcare provider who is not treating COVID-19 patients during this pandemic. She explains how she’s supporting her patients through and how she’s finding ways to support herself.
In the first few weeks of the pandemic, Alex and her colleagues had to make quick decisions around which patients absolutely needed to come into the hospital for chemotherapy, despite the risk of COVID-19, and who could wait. This meant conducting a risk/benefit analysis, pausing or drastically shifting some patient's care, and managing patients’ anxiety around these decision. Alex explained how oncology allows providers to establish strong, long lasting relationships with their patients and how because of that she often absorbs her patients’ fears and concerns, making these rearrangements in treatment exhausting.
So she quickly came up with a COVID-19 cancer care package (pictured above) to better support her patients. She sent around emails to gather donations (hand sanitizer, thermometers, etc.) and FedEx-ed or hand delivered the packages to her patients. Additionally, after friends shipped her loads of face masks, she started handing them out at grocery stores or gas stations. “Since I wasn’t on the ‘front lines’ of COVID-19,” said Alex, “I thought about what else I could do in my community. You receive when you give.”
Despite her hard work and dedication to her patients and her community, Alex explains how many health care workers not on the ‘front lines’ (ie. emergency room, COVID-19 units) are currently feeling a sense of survivors’ guilt, “Because we don’t have N95 (surgical mask) bruises on our faces or we’re not holding patients' hands as they die, it’s easy to feel like I’m not doing enough.” However, Alex discovered that this comparative guilt does not serve her, and decided to take a new approach.
Alex explains that self care was not high on her priority list the first few weeks of the pandemic, and her usual coping skills, such as festivals and music shows, were taken away from her due to the shutdowns. She lives alone, her non-medical friends left the city, she couldn’t go outside to run, and she felt a sense of anxiety. She asked herself the question: what serves me and what doesn’t serve me? In answering that question she decided to take a hard look at her social media life. It had become really difficult to look at people spending their "social-distancing" time at the beach or at a lake, so she un-followed some of those friends. Instead, she reached out to social media to find support. As a Phish fan, she posted in a Facebook group called ‘Phish Chicks’ asking if anyone would be willing to send her mail since she was feeling lonely. She immediately began receiving packages or letters every day, and plans to reciprocate the gesture when things settle down. She went on to share that she began really paying attention to the little things as a way to find relief. She tried adding color to her apartment, she began collaging, she also figured out that getting to the grocery story and preparing food was something that was causing anxiety. With her parents 45 minutes away in Long Island, she was able to out source this task to them. Her parents would ask for a menu each week, cook a fridge worth of food, and drive in to drop it off and visit with masks on from six feet away.
“I’m hopeful that this could be a reboot for mankind, and good things could come out of it, not just bad things. That we could somehow all unite together.”
When asked what else she wanted to leave our listeners with, Alex wanted to emphasize the importance of practicing self-compassion, “We’re all experiencing a collective trauma, and whatever you’re doing is enough. Be kind to others, and especially yourself. Accept the situation because it’s not changing, and fighting it will only make it harder. And as Phish says, Just relax, you’re doing fine.” Lastly Alex explains how her ‘Not go crazy during quarantine list’ has helped her to find time for self-care during the pandemic, which includes things like talking to one person per day, getting her heart rate up, etc. She offers great suggestions for self-care that we are excited to build upon for those listening from home.
Alex has done a lot of introspective work even before the pandemic. And it still took her a while to balance self-care and serving others. She was even experiencing guilt despite working so hard. So be easy on yourself, and remember that whatever you’re doing is enough. In case you need ideas for self-care activities, here are a few things Alex’s story inspired us to try:
Making A Task List to Combat Guilt: If you relate at all to Alex's guilt of not "doing enough" during this pandemic, or for any other reason, try making a note of everything you do throughout the day to get a true sense of progress towards your goals. This allows you to see that you’re making a difference even if it’s not directly related to the global crisis.
Giving to Receive: As Alex explained we receive when we give. And it is also possible to use the serving of others as a way of self-care if directing care at yourself seems inaccessible right now. Try to make a goal that once a day, or once a week, you intentionally do something kind for someone else. Maybe it’s a quick text, or affirmation to someone who needs it, a handwritten letter, or maybe it's donating time or money to cause you believe in. Sending support to someone else, truly can brings us positivity.
Taking a Hard Look at Social Media: This can be hard. The draw of social media is real and right now tensions on social media can be high. This is an invitation to find a way to allow yourself enough space and grace to either unfriend or block those whose social media posts are adding to your anxiety. Or if it feels safe, and is important to you, try direct messaging that person in order to remove the audience from the conversation and have a more personal discussion. This activity is not intended to send the message that we should never engage in conversation with people who have different viewpoints than we do. Simply to make the case, that if it is adding to your anxiety in any way, maybe social media is not the place to do that.
Again, as Alex so clearly explained, self care and giving can be a way to increase your own positivity. Alex is doing that in many ways and we wanted to leave you with a link to a Go Fund Me project she started. Alex quickly figured out that the subway was no longer safe and found alternative ways to commute. She was made aware that, despite feeling "terrified" on their ways to and from work, many of the hospital's support staff didn't have the luxury of avoiding those crowded trains. This Go Fund Me page is dedicated to raising money for gift cards to ensure support staff have access to taxis or Ubers and can commute in a much safer way.
You can support Alex’s fundraising campaign here, and listen to the full episode of the podcast here.
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In Season 1 of Finding the Helpers, we are bringing personal stories of front line staff and families impacted by COVID-19. Our diverse guests will be invited to share their story of being on the front line, and in combination to their story, two expressive art therapists will provide art and creative activities that will support the challenges the individual and their family is facing. These could include ideas for short relaxation techniques to be done on the front line, creative ways to explain in kid friendly terms what is happening, ways to stay connected to family and children during long periods of isolation, etc. Throughout the podcast, conversation will include mental health insight related to the pandemic, anxiety and stress, grief and loss, resiliency, coping skills, and understanding the pandemic. Presented by the nonprofit Playing to Live's, whose history began in 2014 as a grassroots program focused on bringing play and creativity in the midst of the Ebola deadly viruses. Following our work in Ebola, we have continued our work as advocates and creators for play and expression across the globe in refugee settings, post war countries, and in the United States of America.
Lindsay Bingaman is the Regional Program Manager for Playing to Live, based in Nairobi, Kenya.