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Coping with COVID | Travel ICU Nurse Michelle Kozempa - Atlas All Access 120

What's it like to be a nurse during a pandemic?

Even more complicated, how do you unwind after the high-stress job of working on a COVID-19 floor?

Learn from our travel nurses who have had a front-row seat to the changing impact of the coronavirus on hospital life for healthcare workers.

Whether you are a permanent staff nurse, an active travel nurse, or someone looking to take that first travel contract -- here's what it is like to be a travel nurse during the COVID-19 age.

Things have been rough, and we have said many times this is a #podcast where we will tackle any topic for you. This is the reality of being a nurse during the coronavirus pandemic.

This is what it's like after you come off the job. With all that stress and pressure, it's important to connect with others and do something you enjoy -- find a way to unwind.

Be careful, be smart, and be safe out there. And take some advice to heart from nurses and fellow healthcare professionals who have been there.

Check out last week's episode for more nurse views from the front lines:

Michelle Kozempa: If someone asks me, "How are you doing?" And they responded, "I don't even know right now." And I think for a long time, I was like, "I really don't know."

Michelle Kozempa: My name is Michelle Kozempa]. I am a cath lab and ICU nurse. I've been a nurse for four years, and I've been a travel nurse for a little over two. And I've been with Atlas that whole time.

Rich Smith: So first of all, thank you for responding.

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. Absolutely.

Rich Smith: I want to get my head straight on this. I'm curious as to, no pun intended there, after working in a COVID unit ... from coming from cath lab, right, into ICU, and then working with COVID patients, what does that do to you?

Michelle Kozempa: So, for the past year, I've been in the cath lab, before that, I was always an ICU nurse. I traveled ICU. So I think I'm kind of used to operating at kind of like a ... it's almost like a baseline level of chaos a little bit. You get used to that. And then even in the cath lab, you're always on your feet and having to anticipate because any procedure, anything could happen, you never know. But then going from cath lab, then switching back to ICU, going up to Chicago, it was like the first day I walked in, I was kind of like, "Oh shoot, I don't know if I can do this," but then it's almost like that baseline of chaos kind of shifts, and then you just get used to it again. And then you just kind of fall back into ... instincts kind of just take over and training takes over, and.

Rich Smith: And that old routine kind of falls back into place for you, the riding a bike thing maybe.

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah, kind of. Yeah, kind of. I mean, I think I was there my first day in ICU, my point of contact person, they pretty much showed us to where the door of the ICU was, and it was a closed unit because a whole unit was a COVID unit and pretty much dropped us off at the door and was like, "Okay, good luck. Bye." I'm like, "Okay, cool." But it was fine. I got in there. I think within probably an hour, the charge nurse came over and she was like, "Okay, I have a fresh cardiac arrest for you to take. Are you okay?" And I'm like, "All right, I guess this is just how it's going to be. We're going to do this." And then you just kind oF ... you learn to operate at that different level. So it wasn't bad. It wasn't too bad switching back over.

Rich Smith: So you're done there now, right? Is that right, or are you-

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. Friday was my last day.

Rich Smith: Last day by your contract.

Michelle Kozempa: Well, so it's kind of weird. I was in the cath lab. I was in a hospital in Peoria in central Illinois and started there in November in the cath lab, had just started my extension in March, and then all this craziness happened. The hospital I was at, they were furloughing employees. They weren't getting hit by the virus, but they had a sister hospital that they had just bought up in Chicago that was in desperate need of help. So I got an email from HR, and I had talked to my manager about it, so I kind of knew the cancellation was coming. I messaged my recruiter and was like, "Hey, I'm going to need to start looking for something."

Michelle Kozempa: But I got an email from HR, and they basically said with your resume and your background in lieu of a cancellation they say we can either cancel you and give you two weeks pay out, which is nice of them, or with your background, we can use you and kind of redeploy you up to Chicago to help with the COVID crisis up there and work in ICU. So that was for four weeks. And then I had two weeks left on my contract. So I actually worked up there five weeks, and then that was it. So my contract was over two weeks early, but better that I can't complain, I got another five weeks. I've been working this whole time, so.

Rich Smith: That was, yeah. And the reason why I asked is I legitimately didn't know because there have been so many cancellations, and you just don't know.

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. So, I mean, I appreciated the opportunity rather than being flat out canceled. There's a small little part of me for a second that was like, "Heck no, take the two weeks, take your money and run. Go back to Texas." But then I think there was a bigger part of me that, I mean, it was like, no, number one, travelers all over, like you said, are getting canceled. The market right now is really volatile. It still is. Two, it was just kind of ... I'm not a person. When there's fire, there's people running towards it and there's people running away. I'm always the one running towards it, which probably gives my mom a little bit of a heart attack, but I think she's used to it by now. So, yeah, for a second I was like, "Eh, no, I don't ... maybe." But then I was like, "No, I'm going to go," so.

Rich Smith: Yeah. So you mean deep down you were an ICU nurse were, are, is, right? I mean that's ... if I knew ... ICU nurses are ... okay, so I always say, here's the thing, I always say ER nurses are my favorite. I don't know why. They just kind of are. ICU nurses are the fearless ones. I don't know ... and I'm sure deep down there's something that will shake you, but the ICU nurses seem to just have that like, "Yep. Let's do it." You run towards the fire. You run towards the whatever, the gunfire, whatever it is, right? Whatever the danger.

Michelle Kozempa: Right. Yeah. And I think it's ... I mean, I think a lot of it, too, is I'm very much a competitive person. I've always been an athlete. So there's that competitive nature to it, that, "Okay, you're going to give me this challenge? Well, I'm going to face that challenge, and then I'm going to beat it." And then there's also that part of me that's just the neurotic, type A, perfectionist that ... it just comes out, so.

Rich Smith: Look, I mean you're talking to type A here, too, so I completely understand. It annoys me sometimes, but in myself and in others, right? I know. But, it's all just a reflection of myself and maybe the annoyances that I have with who I am sometimes.

Michelle Kozempa: Right.

Rich Smith: So, okay. So part of this was that kind of how's your head with the whole May is mental health awareness month. And not that nursing was ever easy to begin with, I know that, but especially right now, how is your head? And I've asked this before, "How you doing?" And the typical answer is, "Oh, I'm fine." Are you really fine? How are you?

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. I'm getting better. I saw a meme that was like if someone asks me, "How are you doing?" And they responded, "I don't even know right now." And I think for a long time, I was like, "I really don't know," because it was hard. And it was. I mean, obviously in the ICU, we deal with death all the time. It's nothing new, but just the sheer amount that we dealt with, the working conditions, just everything surrounding with COVID and all that, it just kind of made it for a completely different environment.

Michelle Kozempa: And it was very hard for me, I think, because you're so used to being in that environment and you're so used to being kind of on at all times. And you're constantly firing, where it took me ... last Friday was my last day, so it's been six days off, and it's took me probably a solid three or four of those days before I could find ... I needed to learn how to, and I still am not good at it, but I need to learn how to just relax again and how to just be and not ... my mind is always thinking. And I'd go home at night and go back to the hotel and let my dog out and sleep. And my mind's constantly racing, and you're hearing the alarms.

Michelle Kozempa: And it took a few days to really kind of settle down. I don't know. I feel like part of it I've kind of put it in a part of my brain and tucked it away. I hadn't really talked to many people about it, so. And I don't know, maybe I will, maybe I won't, maybe that's just how I process things, but it's taken awhile, but I feel like I'm getting ... I told my recruiter ... my poor recruiter. I thank God for Deanna because I was ... I mean, I think I'm a pretty low maintenance traveler. I really only text if I need things. She always texts to check on me. I feel like we have a friendship, so we do talk regularly. But I feel like I was just texting her like three or four times a week, "What's going on? Am I going back to Peoria? How long do they need me here?" And I feel like she probably was like, "Oh, this girl is having a mental breakdown."

Michelle Kozempa: But, I'm doing a lot better. I made a decision, and it's kind of coming a perfect time where my contract ended. With how the market is right now, I kind of made the decision to just take some time off. I have a beach house in Florida that I'm just going to go do for the month of June and kind of just relax and just kind of learn how to slow down again. And then maybe by that point, too, the market will be kind of back to normal-ish or not as bad and can get back at it. But it's definitely taken me some time to kind of come down from all that.

Rich Smith: I think that's one of those things is learning how to turn it off, right, when you're not there. And that might go a long ways for your just mental wellbeing is figuring out how, with your personality type and who you are and the specialty that you're in, being able to turn it off for a bit.

Michelle Kozempa: Right. Yeah. And it's always been something. Since I started nursing, I think it's just always something that you kind of have to learn how to shift out of that fight or flight response to just relax, like it's okay. I really kind of made an effort to turn off the TV, turn off social media because I feel like things like that aren't helpful. And just kind of ... I mean, I'm still in Illinois. I'm self quarantining for two weeks since I was kind of in the thick of it just before I go anywhere. And home workouts, I've just been reading books. I started classes to get my BSN, which I've been putting off forever. And while that kind of adds more stress, it also kind of gives my brain something to focus on, so in a way it's almost more calming, but.

Michelle Kozempa: I mean, my poor dog, she's probably like, "Cool it, lady. Enough with the walks," but. I had another thing going, cath lab, working eight, nine hour days, depending on where I was, I was working nine hour days this assignment, to going back to working those 12, 13, 14 hour shifts. I've been in the cath lab for a year, you almost forget how to do that. So that was another thing that took some getting used to, but then it's kind of almost nice because, literally, you go to work, you come home, you go to bed, and you go back to work. So it's like you didn't have time to think of anything else. So I think that kind of ... maybe over exhaustion helped. I don't know.

Rich Smith: Sometimes. Maybe it's the opposite effect of turning it off. If it's just on all the time, then you don't have time to really process what you've seen, where you've been, what you've done. You're just going and going.

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. I think that's kind of also ... I think there's a little part of that where I'm at right now ,too, is where I don't think I've really still processed it. I mean because it was bad in Chicago. It was one of the areas that was hit hard. I was working a 27-bed COVID ICU. Everyone was COVID positive or a rule out. We we turned our PACU into a COVID ICU. We also had our fast track area in the ED that was a COVID ICU with hold over patients that didn't have rooms. And so you're in this environment, and it was almost like one of those things where I was less anxious at work, and I was almost more calm at work because you were focusing on the task at hand. Whereas now that I have like time to look over and kind of think of that process, like what happened, I'm like, "Oh no. I'm not ready to do that yet."

Rich Smith: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think that you'll find that in a lot of things. I've read recently just trying to maybe understand because I've said this so many times before, there's a reason why I'm on this side of the desk and not on your side of the desk. I just can't. I know that's not a piece of me, right? I don't have that bone in my body, and it just doesn't exist. But trying to understand that point of view is hard. It's difficult.

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. And I mean, part of ... I think if you have nurses, a lot of their friends are nurses. The things we talk about at the dinner table aren't normal dinner table conversation. So it helps to talk to people. I've talked to my nurse friends from my home hospital in Ohio and back in Texas and just to travelers I've met along the way and stuff. And so I think it definitely helps to talk with people who've been through it. I'm thankful for that. But, yeah, I think there's a reason that nurses hang out with nurses.

Rich Smith: Look, some of the best dinners I've had were with nurses, too, because to a normal person like, "Oh, that person has no filter," or whatever, it's not that they don't have a filter, it's just that's the world that you live in every single day. And so that's what you talk about.

Michelle Kozempa: Right. Exactly.

Rich Smith: Okay. So I guess last question here is if you had to give advice ... when you talk to your other nurse friends, and you have to give advice, and one of them, they might be struggling, having a difficult time, what advice do you give? What do you say to them?

Michelle Kozempa: Oh, gosh. I think the best advice I can give is do what you ... find things that you enjoy doing that calm you down, like I said, that are the things that you find therapeutic, whether it's going for a walk, reading a book, doing yoga in your living room, or just like I say, talking to someone who has been through it. I think you just have to find different ways ... you have to find coping mechanisms, otherwise you'll never be able to make it. You have to find ... and it could be trial and error, maybe just sitting in front of your television and watching Netflix all day is calling to you. I can't do it because my brain is like, "Dah, dah, dah, dah." I envy people who can, but.

Michelle Kozempa: And then just kind of ... a big thing for me was just get away from the social media, get away from the TV because you're already in this environment all day, you're already having to deal with it. You need to be able when you go home, find a way to just kind of ... there's no real way to completely separate yourself from it, but you have to find a way to kind of put that aside for just a little bit. And if you're constantly reading about it and seeing about it, I think that's kind of ... that was one of the biggest things for me that's kind of helped me calm down. It's just putting it away, signing off.

Rich Smith: So it's so funny that ... so we just moved back in October of last year and moved from one house to another. And it really isn't far from where we lived before, but there's slightly more land here, whereas we were in a neighborhood before. It's still a neighborhood, but we have about two acres now, which is something we always kind of wanted anyway. And so Jana, let's see, Jana's ex sister-in-law Misty, right?

Michelle Kozempa: Uh huh (affirmative).

Rich Smith: So Matt is our marketing director. And so for a housewarming gift, he got me a bird feeder to put outside the dining room window there. And I have never been one to sit down and relax and that type of thing or whatever. I have birds now. I watch my birds out the window, and I would never, ever have thought through all of this ... and who knows if this hadn't happened, the bird thing probably wouldn't have been my thing anyway. I would just be like, "Ah, bird feeder, whatever." But it is such a weird calming thing that I never thought would have existed in my life. But you have to look for those things.

Michelle Kozempa: Right. There's the Illinois River, obviously runs through Peoria. And there's just a spot I'll go to. It's right by a lighthouse, right by the river. And you can just go, and you can ... and that's one thing I do. It's allows me to get outside, try to have the noise of the water in the background, so it's not dead silence. And that's kind of one thing I've been able to do that's been really helpful for me. It really just helps me not think about anything. So, yeah, you find ways.

Rich Smith: It's weird how you find those ways. It's really strange, so. All right. Well, I think you're right. I think in the end ... because I've lived through something similar. I've done this for 16 years now. I've lived through something similar in 2008. It's not going to be easy for a while. It's not easy right now. It's not going to be easy in a month, but eventually I know ... we're all not getting super healthy right now. Magically, we aren't. And then the cath procedures are going to come back, and knee replacements are going to have to happen, and there're going to be babies born prematurely. We're not going to get out of this. And so we're not going to get out of that. How about that? So that's going to come back, and hospitals are going to need ... they're going to need not only their perm staff but they're going to need their temp staff again.

Michelle Kozempa: Right. Yeah. And I mean, I'm confident. And I mean, I said I wanted to re up my ... keep my ICU experience current, so I didn't think this is going to be the way I did it, but, hey, it worked out. So whether it's cath lab, ICU, I mean, there'll be jobs, so. And thanks for traveling, I have the finances to take some time off if I need to. So I'm not panicking.

Rich Smith: And I think that's it. If you were ever going to ... you mentioned memes before. there's that meme, I can go live in a cabin in the woods by myself or whatever, okay, you kind of got that opportunity right now. You can go do that for a month, and you'll do it, find yourself, center yourself, get your head in the right place. And then when things get back to, I don't even know ... I mean, when the flu season hits and things like that in the fall ...

Michelle Kozempa: Yeah. Yeah. It's definitely going to be a new normal, but I mean it'll come back around, so.

Rich Smith: We'll take care of yourself.

Michelle Kozempa: All right. Thank you so much.

Rich Smith: Enjoy Florida. I'm jealous.

Michelle Kozempa: Excited.

Rich Smith: That would be awesome, so. All right, thank you.

Michelle Kozempa: Thanks. Bye.

Rich Smith: All right. Bye.

Rich Smith: A lot of information there. A lot of good information. Not always the best rosiest, brightest picture, but that's just kind of how it is right now. And I think one of the things I'm super proud of here is in the bad times, we're going to tell you it's bad times. We're not going to sugarcoat it. Are there are a lot of jobs out there right now? No, not really. Are there a lot of good jobs out there right now? No, not at all. But, we didn't all magically just get healthier. I didn't stop eating Burger King, right? At some point, I got to go back to the hospital for high blood pressure. I take medication for it right now. That's just me. I got to go back to that sometimes. Who knows what's going to happen. But, the babies are still going to be born. You're still going to need the NICU. You're still going to need to PICU. You're still going to have PEDS units. You're still going to have people with heart conditions. You're still going to have people with mental health issues.

Rich Smith: None of that just all of a sudden got better. If anything, our lack of self care, not wanting to go into the hospital system, maybe has gotten worse. And so that's going to show an increase in the hospital system coming this fall and winter. Who knows. But what I do know is we didn't all magically get healthier, and those jobs are going to come back around, and there's still a nursing shortage, and nothing with that has changed. So it may be hard to find jobs right now. It may be difficult on travel contracts. It's a cycle and these things happen. I've seen it before, and I'm sure we'll see it in the industry again. Hang in there, stay strong, stay mentally strong. Check on each other. Ask your friends, ask your fellow nurses, "Are you okay?" And don't just take, "Yeah, I'm fine," at face value. Generally, you're not fine. Just having that person to talk to is more important than anything right now. Listening to each other, being there for each other is very important. We'll see you next week.