Maggie Harwell is a Richmond, VA-based RN at the VCU Medical Center – one of the nation’s top hospitals. As a nurse on the surgical oncology floor, she’s used to her fair share of stress: she provides post-operative care for patients undergoing surgery for a wide range of cancers. In addition to her “main” duties, she works with trauma surgery, burn, and emergency surgery patients, and serves as her floor’s bereavement coordinator.
At Coop, figuring out healthy ways to wind down before bed is one of our greatest passions, especially in ultra stressful times like these. Seeing as Maggie (and all healthcare workers) are somewhat experts at handling stress, we spoke with her about how COVID-19 has changed her work environment and stress levels, and how she’s finding a wind-down routine that works for her.
COOP: Can you tell a little bit about your “normal,” pre-COVID work days?
MAGGIE HARWELL: A normal day pre-COVID would go something like this:
- Providing care to patients post-operatively is my main duty.
- I also train new graduate RNs.
- I’m involved with several committees in our hospital; I’m the unit bereavement coordinator, the unit representative for the surgical nurse practice committee, and I’m on a committee to organize interprofessional educational in-services to our nurses. So depending on the day, there’s always something within one of those committees that needs attention!
C: So let’s get COVID out of the way. How is it changing your work life?
MH: COVID was originally a drastic change for us. Since we’re a surgical floor, and the hospital temporarily stopped all elective surgeries, we had approximately half our normal patients. We originally did not take any COVID patients, but as the medicine floors started filling up, we eventually started to take on this patient load.
It was of course a very anxious time, all of us worrying about catching COVID ourselves or bringing it home to our loved ones. We were fortunate enough that only one of our nurses so far have contracted it from our patients, and that she recovered quickly.
Another very difficult change we dealt with during COVID is that our hospital doesn’t allow any visitors. Our patients are often dealing with new cancer diagnosis and being very ill—a lot of things that are very difficult to face alone. We’ve constantly been adapting to changes, as it seems the policies are different each day.
C: What’s been your most difficult adjustment?
MH: A lot of our coping mechanisms for such a difficult job have been taken away from us. Everyone has to be careful, but medical professionals have to be extremely careful, so I don’t see my friends or family at all. I’m definitely an extrovert, so it’s been a real struggle.
C: Outside of lockdown and quarantine, is COVID changing any of your behavioral habits at home? Specifically how you’re taking care of yourself?
MH: I’ve been lucky enough during lockdown and quarantine to have projects. My boyfriend bought a house that requires a decent amount of work, so we’ve spent a lot of time painting, ripping up carpet, doing lots of yard work, and moving. Having something to keep myself busy has been crucial—I don’t know what I’ll do when we finish everything.
Therapy is also so important, and I continue my sessions through Telehealth, which was a difficult adjustment originally, but it almost seems more productive than office visits now!
C: How are you de-stressing during this time?
MH: I’m a very social person, so social time with my friends is generally how I decompress, and I don’t think I’ve completely discovered my best way to de-stress yet! Now that our house projects are winding down, I’m having to find new coping mechanisms. I’ve started playing Animal Crossing, which is honestly great for people who are really social, especially if your friends play, too. You just build your own little world and can interact with your friends in their little worlds. Even though it’s a children’s game, it provides a lot of reprieve from daily life.
C: Let’s talk about your bedtime routine! What do you do to wind down?
MH: I’ve been dealing with a lot of resurfacing of the stress dreams I had as a new nurse. I’ve been working on winding down in the form of self-care, which includes long, hot showers, a skin care routine to try to combat “maskne” (mask acne), adding a magnesium supplement to help calm my nerves. I’ll also watch television, read a book, or play Animal Crossing for distraction!
C: How do you wind down after a night shift?
MH: I’m usually so tired after a night shift that falling asleep isn’t too difficult. I get home around 8 a.m., take a shower, perform my skin care routine, and climb into bed to get comfortable. Honestly, I’d never invested in a good pillow before, and the Coop Original has been truly life changing; I’m comfortable right away and don’t have to constantly fluff it up.
C: Do you have any advice for people dealing with having a hard and stressful time during COVID?
MH: It’s so important to be adaptive and accepting of change, but to also be gentle with yourself. I’ve found on occasion just being very angry at everything, because I’m sacrificing so much. And then I’ll feel guilty for being angry, because everyone’s sacrificing. Instead of pushing these feelings aside, I’m trying to allow myself to explore them. It’s a time to forgive myself and learn.