Faith on the Frontlines: Healthcare Workers Battle Burnout With Spirituality

Robert Lamb

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Fregeau contemplates how faith helps him cope with pandemic fatigue(Public Information Desk - Region 13)

Michael Fregeau will never forget one of his earliest COVID patients. A small child was brought into the ER with difficulty breathing. Medical staff did their best to help, but the child did not survive.

“Many of us were distraught over the situation and it was very hard to deal with for a period of time,” says Fregeau, a critical care nurse at a rural hospital on the island of Hawaii. In fact, some medical staff needed to take time off after the child’s death to deal with feelings of loss and helplessness.

For the last year and a half, going to work has been “like walking into a war zone,” says Fregeau. “I have to prepare myself mentally. It’s just one major disaster after another. We feel like we want to help people, but sometimes you feel like you’re not doing enough.”

As a former service member, Fregeau worked in a nuclear submarine for three and a half years. “This is much more stressful than anything I went through in the military,” he says.

Before Covid struck Fregeau says that he and his fellow nurses had time to talk about the things they saw or were exposed to. Now, there’s no time for that. The hospital he works at has experienced severe staff shortages and with never-ending Covid cases, there’s no end in sight.

“It takes a toll,” says Fregeau. Some frontline medical workers have traumatic stress disorders while some have turned to drugs and alcohol. Fregeau says what has helped him was turning to the Bible.

“It can alter your thinking. Give you hope. Help you deal,” he says.

His weekly association with fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses via Zoom has also helped to strengthen and encourage him. “We gain a lot of comfort from each other,” he says.

This spiritual focus has helped Fregeau and other frontline medical workers in his religious community battle through the mental and emotional toll of the pandemic.

“What healthcare workers are experiencing is akin to domestic combat,” Andrew J. Smith, Ph.D., director of the University of Utah Health Occupational Trauma Program at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said in a press release from his institution.

According to a study conducted by Smith’s group, more than half of the doctors, nurses and emergency responders providing COVID-19 care could be at risk for one or more mental health problems—including acute traumatic stress, depression, and anxiety.

American psychological and psychiatric associations, while not advocating or endorsing any specific religion, acknowledge a role for spirituality and religious faith in coping with distress and trauma.

Lawrence Onoda, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Mission Hills, California, noted a number of 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.”

As for Fregeau, although he continues to see death and distressing situations daily, he says that looking forward to a better future as promised in the Bible is like seeing “ a light in a darkened world.”

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As a local media representative for Jehovah's Witnesses, my objective is to share accurate and encouraging local articles that show how a positive outlook is helping Witness families and others in everyday life. I am also a published freelance writer for a couple of local newspapers. One paper I wrote for was the Crittenden Press in Marion, Kentucky. Another paper I have written for is the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Keaau, Hawaii.

Keaau, HI
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