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'No gas left in the tank': Health-care workers share stories of abuse, feelings of burnout

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The fourth wave of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to negatively impact health-care workers as many face verbal and physical abuse from patients.

After seeing a record-shattering number of patients, Alberta's hospitals now have 419 COVID-19 patients, including 76 in intensive care units.

While hospitalizations in the province have gradually decreased after peaking in early fall, the seven-day rolling average of total patients admitted remains at approximately 444.

Dr. Neeja Bakshi, internal medicine and COVID-19 unit physician, says the plateau in admissions still means a high workload for medical staff. Workers are experiencing burnout and abuse from patients.

"I don't feel like I've gotten off this train for 21 months," Bakshi said. "The whole feeling of the hospital has changed."

Bakshi shared how she has experienced verbal abuse, has been spat on, and even had things thrown at her by patients.

"I feel like it's gotten worse," Bakshi said. "I feel like I can't walk into a patients' room at this point and expect gratitude or politeness.

"There are moments when I'm scared to go in the room because I'm not sure what I'm going to encounter," she added. "There's only so much backlash that you can hear before you start to feel like, why am I doing this?"

"There's no gas left in the tank, and they (staff) don't know where to go or who to turn to anymore," added Tim Bouwsema, a registered psychiatric nurse.

Bouwsema says a growing number of colleagues are turning to him or employee assistance programs.

"We laugh, we make jokes sometimes after the fact to try to cope," he said. "But these things, they leave a mark."

Both health-care professionals said it is not just the COVID-19 deniers or unvaccinated taking out their frustration on health-care workers.

"The people who have been waiting for surgeries, and they've been cancelled three, four, five times, and they sometimes lash out at us," Bouwsema said.

Last month, the Canadian Medical Association called on the federal government to make this type of behaviour towards medical staff a criminal offence.

The pair of Alberta health-care workers say many colleagues are now reassessing their career.

"We're going to get to a point where we have skeleton crews everywhere, which is not the way a health-care system can survive," Bakshi said. "I would argue that we're not surviving now. We're just barely getting by."

"There were already signs of an exodus of physicians leaving the province," she added. "People are re-evaluating their lives. They're re-evaluating, number one, do I still want to be a doctor? Is there a better or different place where I'm not going to be burned out?"

While they applauded Alberta Health Services' (AHS) efforts to deal with hostile patients, they hope to see more mental health supports.

In a statement to CTV News, AHS says it is committed to providing a safe and healthy work environment for all employees and volunteers. Workers can receive support through the crisis management team or the Employee and Family Assistance Program.

"We've recently seen an increase in the number of AHS staff accessing our mental health supports and online learning opportunities to support their mental health and well-being," AHS said in a statement.

"As an organization, we are exploring and always trying to find ways to improve our resources and supports in place to ensure our staff get the right resources to support and promote mental health throughout the pandemic."