The Robert G. Fenley Writing Awards: General Staff Writing - Gold
Best in Show Finalist
Pandemic Pivot Winner
“The Price” explores the emotional and psychological toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on health care workers throughout the UCLA Health system and beyond. With dozens of patients dying each day and scores more on respirators and in intensive care, frontline health care workers had to contend with unprecedented circumstances — not just the extraordinary workloads but also the inconceivable psychic pain of serving as an emotional bridge for family members who couldn’t be close to their ailing loved ones and seeing so many people die alone. Doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists, custodial workers, and hospital administrators opened up about the mental health challenges they faced during this historic time in health care. One doctor was ready to quit. Another would finish her shifts so drained she didn’t even have energy left to cry. A custodial worker broke down in tears just recounting her time on the job during the pandemic, sharing how she tried to comfort patients, even those who couldn’t speak but pleaded with their eyes, “Help me.” “The Price” shines a light on the deep commitment health care workers have to their patients, even when the work demands everything they have to give.
What was the most impactful part of your entry?
The most impactful part of this story was hearing candid stories directly from workers on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. There’s a certain emotional decorum health care workers typically exhibit — a detached professional composure required by the job. That veil was lifted in these interviews and the resulting story. In light of the suffering and uncertainty wrought by COVID-19, these professionals allowed themselves to express their full humanity and vulnerability, revealing the otherwise hidden emotional cost of caring for patients during the pandemic. Sharing their stories so openly in “The Price” shows patients how deeply engaged health care workers are with their mission of healing, despite the emotional toll that commitment can take, and lets other medical workers know they are not alone.
What is one thing you learned from your entry/experience?
I learned how deeply our health care workers were suffering. Many of the conversations I had with these professionals were profoundly emotional. I think these individuals had been yearning for someone to acknowledge what they’d been going through and even to hear themselves speak about their experiences out loud. One doctor I interviewed said our conversation was incredibly therapeutic for her. I felt privileged to play that role, but also sad that she hadn’t had the support of an actual, trained therapist during this unprecedented time. Until reporting this story, I hadn’t realized the level of burnout health care workers were experiencing even before the pandemic. Because of the emotional decorum they practice — and because seeking therapy was traditionally frowned upon in the profession — so many clinicians suffered in silence, feeling isolated as though they were the only ones with these challenges.