Personal reflections: connection through COVID | Association of Anaesthetists
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Personal reflections: connection through COVID

Personal reflections: connection through COVID

We collectively watched the accelerating COVID-19 train closing in: powerless to influence its course, a terrifying run away. Ireland, hopelessly under-prepared for pandemic, announced the closure of schools, colleges, universities and childcare facilities on 12 March, the first in a series of societal and economic shutdowns.

Juxtaposition of information vacuum and information overload best describes the past five months. Anxiety, uncertainty and fear resonated throughout work and home environments. Both the healthcare system and our collective neurohormonal responses were on high alert. Tensions and irritability were evident. In the space of a short few weeks, our personal and professional worlds were flipped at a weird dystopian angle. Elective work was cancelled. Education sessions were transformed into PPE drills and ventilation tutorials. Intensive care reorientation was hastily prepared for consultants and trainees alike. Physical barriers, physical distance, facemasks, online meetings and ‘Zoom tutorials’ became the overnight norm.

We are struck by the impact the pandemic has had on human connection. Johann Hari’s ‘Lost Connections’ describes mental health challenges in terms of connections lost to self and others. Connection is fundamental to the human experience. When we feel connected we feel supported. When we feel supported we feel safe. When we feel safe we are undefensive and we thrive. Lost connections fuel anxiety, stress and fear.

Work-related stress unconsciously transferred home. Arrival home became a ritualised decontamination procedure; flight-or-fight responses permanently switched on. Hugs and kisses foregone for fear of transmitting an invisible pathogen. Social distancing became social isolation, grandparents cocooned away. ‘At-risk groups’ limited contact with other human beings. As anaesthesiologists we wear enhanced PPE. As citizens we stand 2 m apart from, and glance awkwardly at, others. Handshakes, hugs and normal physical contact are distant memories. Mundane everyday tasks often mushroomed into enormous undertakings. A simple trip to the supermarket was frequently the final straw. Breathe, just breathe…connect to self.

Breathe, feel, hear, move, observe

Breathe, feel, hear, move, observe. When you feel your body, notice your breath, sense your environment, tune into thoughts and emotions, and move in a way that connects these experiences, you are practicing yoga. You are practicing connection. Connection to breath is connection to self. Slowing noticing your environment is a deeply supportive practice that can be utilised at any time and anywhere. Polyvagal theory proposes that vagally-mediated parasympathetic tone enhances social engagement and feelings of safety, wellness and connection. Connection to breath and engaging vagal tone dampens the stress response. This practice is invaluable as work and home life collide head-on.

Connection to others can be mediated by small deliberate investments. Connection to colleagues within the workplace has fostered trust and collaboration in recent times. Our framework for this investment originates in the Blue Zones® project. The brainchild of National Geographic Fellow Dan Beuttner, this project systematically analysed human society from the perspective of health, longevity and happiness. The key elements of a blue zone can be summarised as: movement; sense of purpose and belonging; taking time to slow down and decompress; putting loved ones first, and not over-eating. In the era of COVID-19, can the workplace be a Blue Zone?

Medical professionals wearing full PPE

A connected work environment is a safe place that embraces and values inclusivity. A sense of connected community within our department was facilitated by integrating Blue Zone core elements. A number of years ago, members of our department deliberately embarked on a series of small initiatives to improve connection between colleagues.

Days spent zip-lining, kayaking, cycling and ice-skating enhanced the work environment by connecting colleagues in ways not possible through work alone. Consultants and trainees shed professional roles and ranks, becoming vulnerable while ‘playing’ together. This vulnerability and willingness to share oneself brought a new dynamic to the workplace that is difficult to adequately characterise or quantify.

Medical colleagues in wetsuits after kayaking

As COVID-19 hit, a trusted friend and yoga teacher developed a mindfulness and movement practice to meet the specific needs of healthcare workers. This resource is free to all, and has been shared worldwide through personal contacts. These practices connect us the ground, our breath, our bodies and our environment, fostering a sense of wellness and safety. Noticing sounds, colours, texture and smells brings a state of mindful awareness. Tuning into one’s senses gives one’s nervous system important safety cues. Sensing one’s body, the ground and the environment establishes mindful contact with self, which may mitigate contact lost with others.

‘Wake-up, shake-up’ is now the new norm. A 07:00 standing appointment to meet for a combination of high intensity interval workouts and yoga on grass, beneath trees, within the hospital grounds. The positive effect on those who participate has been evident. Fun and friendship have been deliberately injected into our often hectic and stressful workday.

Outdoor yoga class

‘Coffee and a gas’ provides an opportunity to develop tribe, and to downshift at work. We embraced the Association of Anaesthetists’ initiative, and hosted monthly scheduled downtime, bringing colleagues together over coffee to chat. Over time, rebranding of this monthly staple brought us ‘pizza and a gas’, ‘curry and a gas’ and ‘Christmas and a gas’. Social distancing makes this initiative difficult but not impossible. This is an important vehicle to connect and decompress with those beside you in the trenches.

The SARS-CoV-2 virus has challenged our sense of personal and professional being as nothing in living memory. Our strategy to develop and nurture a connected professional environment lessened the blow of workplace and work pattern changes. Adopting practices that enable connection to self and others is essential to successful human endeavour. The Blue Zone workplace might provide a template for enhanced connection and a better work environment.

Life is slowly developing a rhythm that resembles a new normal. We all look forward to the day when the company of family and friends can be enjoyed, without the spectre of COVID-19 lurking in the background.

Damian Barry
Consultant Anaesthesiologist
Cork University Hospital, Cork

Jessica Hatchett
Yoga Instructor Flow Yoga Centre,
Clonakilty, Co. Cork

Brian O’Donnell
Consultant Anaesthesiologist
Cork University Hospital, Cork

Twitter: @damobaz87; @yogawestcork; @briodnl

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