McLean Nurses Provide Peer Support to Navajo Reservation Health Care Workers

September 4, 2021

During the COVID-19 pandemic, McLean Hospital clinical staff provided crucial peer-support and therapy to staff at the Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, New Mexico. They were part of a longstanding Mass General Brigham program that aids health care workers who serve in the Navajo Nation reservation.

According to Karen Slifka, RN, MS, CS, nurse director for McLean’s Community Reintegration Unit, the program helped health professionals deal with the emotional stress and professional challenges posed by the pandemic.

“They were hit very hard,” said Slifka, who served at the medical center in May. “The hospital had their outpatient program shut down, staff were deployed around the hospital and given different jobs. Medical records file clerks were pulled out and put on the floor. Dentists from the clinics were pulled out and put on the medical floors. It was a difficult time for them.”

Cassandra M. Godzik, PhD, NP-BC, prescriptive authority nurse at McLean’s Lincoln Residence, spent a week in New Mexico in March. She explained that the Navajo Medical Center has a maximum capacity of 55 beds, but high COVID-19 case numbers in the region forced the center to, at times, take on more than 100 patients.

“There were limited resources,” Godzik said. “Not enough beds, not enough oxygen. Cell service and internet service were not reliable. It was well beyond the hospital’s capacity to manage.”

Along with the day-to-day logistical challenges of running a hospital during a pandemic, Navajo Medical Center staff faced tremendous stress, anxiety, and depression.

“Some people I worked with were frustrated with the system, and some were frustrated with other people on staff,” Slifka reported. “Also, many people had family members, friends, and neighbors die there in the hospital.”

Shiprock monument in New Mexico
Shiprock monument in New Mexico

To help with these challenges, McLean clinicians were sent to New Mexico for a week at a time to provide peer-support. Following a flight to Denver, members of the program would take a connecting flight to Durango, Colorado. From there, they would drive one and a half hours southwest to Shiprock. For their stay, they were housed in an apartment, which they could share with a partner or companion.

During their time at the medical center, the clinicians used different strategies to help staff members cope with the strains posed by the pandemic. Godzik explained that many staff members reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and lack of sleep. To help, McLean staff offered group sessions and individual therapy, as needed.

“I would talk to them about ways to take care of themselves and discuss different strategies” said Slifka. “Sometimes people would make appointments, sometimes people would just stop by to talk. We did whatever we could to help.”

Godzik said, “It was very challenging in terms of psych resources. There was only one psychiatrist at the hospital. They also had an employee assistance program, but other than that, there just wasn’t a lot of support for the clinicians.”

Despite the difficulties, both Godzik and Slifka believe that the McLean staff was able to provide crucial services to health care workers in need.

“A lot of the clinicians hadn’t heard about our program,” Godzik said. “But once they knew about the partnership, the interest in doing consultations skyrocketed. They were so appreciative and happy that we were supporting them.”

Like Godzik, Slifka reported that the Navajo Medical Center staff were grateful to have peer support and guidance to help them through such an unusual and difficult time.

“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “I really think we made a difference.”

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