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My mental health journey: after 38 years of nursing, burnout, fuelled by COVID-19, finally caught up with me

Physical symptoms were early signs that I needed to seek help

By Karen Pantusa
November 20, 2023
Seek help. Accept help. Take time for yourself.

I just couldn’t take it anymore. I felt hurt by my employer and forgotten by my co-workers and management. Also, because of an administrative error with my long-term disability carrier, there was a two-week delay in my payment, leaving me to wonder how I was going to pay my mortgage at the end of the month.

Courtesy of Karen Pantusa
“I am thankful every day that my general practitioner was able to recognize, more clearly than I did, that I needed to take care of my mental health,” Karen Pantusa says.

After three sleepless nights — my mind racing, sleeping pills not working — I emptied out my full prescription of zopiclone into my hand.

This is where I was not that long ago. Although that wasn’t the beginning of my mental health problems, nor was it the end.

I started to notice a few health issues. I was having debilitating back and neck spasms throughout the day, oftentimes unable to turn my head to the right. I had heart palpitations that required me to stop what I was doing and take big, cleansing breaths. I had gastrointestinal upset; constipation or diarrhea, depending on the day; and anger, unbelievable anger, and dropping f-bombs with almost every sentence.

This was a year and a half into the COVID-19 pandemic. Rules for visitors were being changed daily. There were also changes to our unit’s team members, with new staff orienting and experienced staff leaving.

I drove home from work one day, in the pouring rain, tears flowing down my face, when I drove through a stop sign. Luckily, the driver of the pick-up truck noticed me, or that might have been the end of my story.

I was sleeping an average of three to four hours a night and spent times crying, almost daily, in the workplace bathroom. Finally, one day I sat in my car in my driveway and cried, completely debilitated, for the better part of an hour. I got in the house and made a doctor’s appointment.

I am thankful every day that my general practitioner was able to recognize, more clearly than I did, that I needed to take care of my mental health. On a routine follow-up, my doctor signed me out of work on what was to become a long, uphill battle that I hadn’t known I was fighting.

My couch and I became fast friends. Moving from bed to couch was the most I could handle. As a lifelong reader, I was no longer able to read a book or watch TV. My brain felt like it was on overload. TikTok became my best friend because there I could listen or scroll for less than two minutes at a time.

Slowly, after many months, I felt ME coming back. It was arduous as we adjusted my medication. I was checking in every two weeks with my family doctor and almost weekly with a counsellor.

I learned to put words to my feelings and thoughts on paper. I learned that I was still pretty strong, even though I felt like falling apart.

I learned that my thoughts could turn sinister very quickly, and that the love I have for my children stopped me from acting out on those thoughts.

I learned that I have family, friends, and co-workers who love and support me, and some that offer only empty wishes.

The pandemic didn’t cause my breakdown, but after 38 years of nursing at the bedside, including the last 11 working specifically with dementia patients, plus the unknowns of COVID, my body and brain gave up the fight.

Severe burnout, anxiety, depression, and PTSD are now the diagnoses on my medical chart. Medication is helping, as is being monitored by a psychiatrist and my family doctor.

My ability to handle stressful situations is a work in progress. My family doctor, who was once a co-worker, has become my most trusted health-care professional. I’m thankful for him every day.

I’m preparing myself to return to work with these added skills and anticipate that they will enable me to continue my career until I decide it is time to retire.

This has been my mental health journey. It’s but a drop in the ocean compared to the struggles of many others. My advice? All I can say is, deal with issues as they arise. Seek help. Accept help. Take time for yourself.

Postscript: I would love to tell you that my return-to-work plan was seamless, but unfortunately I fell and broke my tibia and fibula a week before I was to go back to my job. Luckily, it did not require surgery. My return to work was delayed by four months, but I’m pleased to report that I’m doing well.

Karen Pantusa, RN, GNC(C), has been practising at the bedside since January 1985. She currently works at Halton Healthcare as a clinical resource nurse on an alternative level of care/transitional care unit.