'Like a soldier in a war zone with no protective gear’: Doctor on stress from COVID-19 frontlines

Written by Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson

Health care workers are now dealing with higher levels of depression and anxiety. They’re suffering panic attacks. Some are contemplating suicide. That’s according to a new study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. 

Dr. Nivedita Lakhera, an internal medicine physician in San Jose, says she’s never seen something like the COVID-19 outbreak in her lifetime. 

“Usually as a physician, we go treat patients, take care of them, and then discharge them home when they're healthy. Now all of the sudden, health care workers have become like a soldier in a war zone without any protective gear. And they are at such high risk of dying in this war while they are trying to save their countrymen,” she says. “That's what has heightened anxiety and depression and mental health issues.” 

She recalls one doctor in San Francisco crying to her. “She was in tears. They don't have masks and don't have hand sanitizer. And they were pleading. Some of the doctors in the area had to open a GoFundMe campaign to buy their masks.” 

Also, one of her oncologist friends got fired. “She's a cancer doctor who got fired because she didn't want to see the immunocompromised cancer patient without a N95 [mask] because she didn’t want to give an infection,” Lakhera says. 

These stories show how major battles are happening at different hospitals, all with different capacities, Lakhera underscores. 

Losing hope, losing doctors

Lakhera says many doctors contact her, and this is what gets her: 

“Physicians feel powerless, they feel helpless. And when you remove hope, you don't know how the brain is going to respond to that, what psychological effect that has on people. 

… And I'm so dreading that this is a beginning of this mental health pandemic, not just in health care workers, but people who are getting unemployed, people who cannot support their family, people who have lost their family members. My colleagues are losing doctors to COVID infections. [All] these things affect us.” 

She points to one doctor in New Jersey who died after using the N95 mask for a week, though it was meant to be used only once per patient encounter. She adds, “He beat cancer twice, but he died from COVID.” 

Mental health support for physicians? 

Does Dr. Lakhera and her colleagues have anywhere to turn for mental health support? Or is she too overwhelmed with work to even consider doing that? 

She responds, “I am fighting so hard for this because I have accepted the fact that I cannot treat COVID. … I cannot fight it. I cannot change policies that should have been changed months ago. I have no control on those two situations. I have no control over the supply of ventilators. And I have no control on [the] supply of protective equipment. I have made my peace with that.

… I see mental health as dreadful as any disease. People lose family members from that. So I'm really trying to advocate. And physicians are helping each other out through Facebook groups. That has become a support system. … We are sharing suicide hotline and all those. But is there a system in place for that? No. Should there have been a system in place for this? Yes.”