Tuesday, August 11, 2020

In the past four months, COVID-19 has dramatically altered our daily routines, work habits and communication with family and friends. Mental health experts recognize that in response, emotional wellbeing has been disrupted by anxiety, uncertainty and grief. Medical workers battling this virus also experience a tremendous physical and mental burden.

Dr. Ram Roth is an anesthesiologist at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Queens. Noting that  one third of Intensive Care  patients died, he needed to identify a dependable, accessible and effective mental health resource for himself and his healthcare colleagues. Doctors such as Dr. Roth and other medical staff work long demanding shifts, and are regularly exposed to heartbreaking events. As a result, Dr. Roth reached out to his long time college friend of 35 years, Dr. Sharon Slater, a licensed clinical psychologist and member of United Hatzalah’s psycho-trauma unit in Israel. UH, an Israeli volunteer emergency medical service organization, focuses on providing both critical care and psychotrauma services. Together, doctors Roth and Slater envisioned a new initiative called “Corona Care Israel," a free, anonymous, 24/7 mental health hotline to provide critical relief to frontline workers in the U.S. After having already “conceived of the idea, formed a team and created a protocol," Dr. Slater remarked, Dr. Roth contacted Mt. Sinai’s internal medical hotline to potentially join forces but they were already mobilizing their own mental health hotline. Offers to various state and city governments were unanswered. Doctors Roth and Slater “turned to United Hatzalah to promote ‘Corona Care Israel’ on a larger basis outside of an individual hospital." In the past two weeks, UH launched its pilot project for New Jersey and is looking to potentially expand in other states as well.


While medical professionals are in need of mental health services, Dr. Slater described, there are many challenges associated with actually getting and finding the required help. Doctors, first responders and nurses are sometimes hesitant to reach out for mental health services “because it feels weak” to do so; they are expected to “deal with death, physical trauma and blood without flinching.” COVID-19 has compounded their usual high-stress work environment, leaving them without healthy coping mechanisms.

Shary Staum, a psychologist based in New York and a UH volunteer, has helped lead the advertising efforts for Corona Care Israel. She elaborated that those who “need psychological services sometimes don’t even know they need it.” While mental trauma can physically manifest in the form of “restless sleep, getting a rashes or skin reaction, etc.,” many workers do not recognize these symptoms as a consequence of their physical and emotional trauma. Even if they were able to recognize their stresspoint, Dr. Slater noted that frontline workers are extremely worried about confidentiality and anonymity and they may not feel comfortable contacting the internal hospital system. Fears of colleagues and bosses finding out, having it made permanent in their records, affecting a promotion, has been deeply cemented in the minds of many medical professionals.

Understanding this nuanced backdrop, UH, an Israeli volunteer emergency medical service organization providing both critical care and psychotrauma services, developed “Corona Care Israel” to offer greater accessibility and confidentiality. Miriam Tennenbaum, the New Jersey regional director of UH, explained that what sets their hotline apart from other services is that “UH has specialized experience” stemming from its “involvement in various international disaster relief efforts, including the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburg and the Ebola outbreak in Liberia.” Its psychotrauma unit, in Israel, has “crucial experience with violence and terror.”

Dr. Slater confirmed that while Israelis are “not more qualified than American psychologists, UH’s psychotrauma team are differently qualified” as they are “exposed to a certain degree of an ongoing traumatic event” by living in Israel’s “ongoing military zone.” UH’s psychotrauma team was initially created to “treat victims of terror attacks...and to prevent PTSD” in response to this unique trauma. This COVID-19 pandemic, she explained, is also a “non-discrete traumatic incident,” as it is an intangible devastation without a clear end in sight. UH, therefore, can relate their own experiences in Israel to the pandemic in American hospital systems.

UH’s psychotrauma team consists of 10 therapists monitoring a  24/7 hotline with “free online anonymous sessions and offer a maximum of three sessions, approximately 30 minutes or less, in order to teach callers the skills and techniques that will help stabilize them emotionally.” It is a key element that it is a 24/7 hotline because nights, she described, are “particularly challenging from intrusive thoughts, nightmares, interrupted sleep, etc.” This internationally autonomous organization is completely confidential, abating fears that their personal information will be available to their employers.

Corona Care Israel is focused on bringing short-term therapy in response to COVID-19. Tannenbaum related that while COVID rates have decreased in New Jersey, “now is the perfect time to process and create coping mechanisms to manage the second wave of COVID without crashing.”

UH’s initiative also involves reaching out to a variety of healthcare workers and responders such as workers in nursing homes, law enforcement, hospital systems, EMT, etc. Tannebaum remarked that while Corona Care Israel was piloted first in New Jersey and that 75% to 80% of their outreach efforts are in New Jersey, UH recognizes the need for help in other states and is initiating programs in Florida and Minnesota.

As a volunteer for UH, psychologist Staum has been collaborating with colleagues to spread the word about Corona Care Israel by contacting newspapers, synagogues and nursing associations. She also made clear that Hatzalah is a diverse group of people from “all walks of life” and is not just a resource for Jews. The main objective is to be “proactive” by responding now in order to avoid losing this invaluable group of professionals who are fighting the virus. Regional director of UH Tannenbaum remarked that they are “trying to be very creative in outreach to get the word out” and that the “community has been very appreciative of it.” She feels that Corona Care Israel is an “opportunity to extend assistance with our unique tools, and we feel very blessed to provide this very specific initiative.”

As for Dr. Slater, she emphasized that Corona Care Israel is a team effort: “There are no stars in the program; we have all been very active in creating the protocol and working to make the initiative take off as a team.” Indeed, Corona Care Israel is a microcosm of the national and international collaborative efforts it will take to overcome COVID-19.

Olivia Butler is a student at Washington University in St. Louis and a summer intern for The Jewish Link.