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How Front Line Workers Stayed Resilient During The Pandemic


In March, the American Psychological Association marked a year into the pandemic with a survey. To no surprise, it found Americans were worried, tired and stressed. Parents, communities of color and essential workers were the most likely to say they were dealing with both physical ailments and mental challenges. For our series on resilience, we hear now how some of those workers not only coped but persevered. Jennifer Kelly is a psychologist and president of the APA.

JENNIFER KELLY: The essential workers did not have to do that. So what kept them there? They felt that they would be making a difference. They would all have something that they would contribute to the positive outcome in this very negative situation. It's amazing their level of resilience and how they just made it through this.

JHONELLY GIL: My name is Jhonelly Gil. I'm a housekeeper in New York City, Bellevue Hospital Center. I work in the emergency room and used to seeing a lot of patients for - in that specific time, seeing so much patients all over the hallway, the rooms full of patients. It was really stressful. And used to see sick people and dying every single day. It was very depressing.

RACHEL RACKOW: My name is Rachel Rackow. And I am a palliative care physician in Portland, Ore. Palliative care is a specialty in medicine that focuses on quality of life in patients who have chronic and serious illness. Those illnesses are often fatal. And so for those of us also caring for those patients and their families, that was an added layer of challenge and grief.

DALLAS HIGGINS: My name is Dallas Higgins. I'm a fire captain for the city of San Diego, San Diego Fire-Rescue Department on Engine 17. With COVID, there were so many unknowns. Are we going to be exposed? If I get exposed and I get sick, is my family exposed? And then am I not working anymore? Is that going to affect my ability to provide for my family? Events like that that kind of - we attribute it to almost, like, sandbags. You felt like every day, you're kind of wearing extra sandbags on your shoulder where the mission was the same.

SIMON: For Jhonelly Gil, who works at Bellevue Hospital, faith would become his touchstone.

GIL: When I take my lunchtime, they give me an - one-hour break. I eat something quick and go to my supply closet, close the door and sit there and pray and read the Word. That was like my therapy time to keep my mind strong and my spirit. That's what the Word of God teach you, to respect everyone around you and be humble and be helpful as much as you can.

SIMON: Dr. Rackow says that staying by the sides of patients and families and trying to ease their suffering, even if it had to be done virtually, answered her lifelong calling.

RACKOW: You know, I think it's a combination of just a basic desire to take care of people and to make people's lives as best they can be. That's how you give back to the world - is by caring for people.

SIMON: And Fire Captain Higgins fell back on his training and the way in which the community around him came together.

HIGGINS: So I've been in the system for over 20 years. This is the toughest trial I've ever seen us go through. And we're still learning. It's still changing on a daily basis. But to this day, it's an insane amount of motivated firefighters that are highly trained, that didn't shy away from any challenge. This challenge - you didn't see anybody say, well, that's it. I quit. I'm not doing this anymore. You just saw people educate, train themselves, use their PPE, use their gear every single day. So the public should rest assured that their 911 system, their emergency system is just as resilient and tough as before and that we reflect those same community values that we saw people employ throughout this entire time.

SIMON: Psychologist Jennifer Kelly says that resilience may be built into our human fiber. But it also has to be nurtured and protected.

KELLY: Having the support from others and being able to exercise the self-care and taking care of yourself, having more information. And I think that those kinds of things help. And also, the thing that really helped me to have hope is that when I saw these individuals out there doing this work because of the goodness in their heart - and it's all about humankind. And they know that there's this big challenge out there. And someone has to do something to make a difference.

SIMON: Meeting unimagined challenges with hard work, commitment and faith, often faith in each other, have helped to give human beings resilience in these trying times of suffering and loss.