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Keep Breathing: The COVID Marathon Goes On

I have a small, polished quartz rock in my office with the word BREATHE carved on it. It catches my eye at various times throughout the day, especially when the day is stressful. I periodically move the rock to strategic locations in my office, always within view, to help me refocus as needed (PRN) during particularly trying meetings or patient encounters.

Due to the complex challenges of our correctional work, we all require resiliency. These challenges, our daily work and family responsibilities, and the need to be resilient have been greatly tested during COVID-19. Now is a good time to breathe.

Hopeful Signs
As I approach the end of my year as chair of the NCCHC Board of Representatives, I am extremely hopeful that with the availability of safe and effective vaccines, we are closer than ever to the end of this marathon. I’ve never run a marathon, but I hear those last few miles are the hardest.

In the early months of the pandemic, I recall seeing footage of hospital staff in major metropolitan areas being cheered and applauded at change of shift.

I doubt anyone stood outside your unit and cheered for you. But I applaud you, as does the entire board, the NCCHC staff, and especially your patients.

You have worked wonders over the past year and a half and continue to do so. You check temperatures, perform nasal swabs, screen new intakes, work with custody staff to identify and house at-risk individuals in medical isolation or quarantine, carefully document and report to state health departments, and take on countless other duties.

Thanks to your hard work and commitment, the delivery of health care behind bars has continued throughout the pandemic, and the incarcerated are now being vaccinated against the virus in large numbers.

Your compassion and dedication mean that your patients have continued to have critical access and continuity of health care during one of the most stressful times imaginable. You and your teammates in both custody and health care have overwhelmingly succeeded in confining and limiting the spread of COVID to the best of your abilities in a closed environment.

You have seen firsthand the effects of COVID, and may have experienced the loss of family, friends, colleagues, and patients. Simultaneously you faced the continuous risk and fear of becoming infected and bringing the virus home to friends and loved ones, all while the media painted a picture of jails and prisons as festering petri dishes for COVID spread.

A Million Thanks
When someone graduates, there is a ceremony and celebration. Similarly, when a patient with cancer finishes a course of chemotherapy or radiation treatment, the patient rings a bell and staff cheer for this tremendous milestone.

I wish we could arrange for a celebration at your work site with a color guard, a spread of tasty Texas barbeque, Tex-Mex food, and fried catfish with all the fixings, plenty of home-baked goodies and desserts, a flyover by the U.S. Thunderbirds or Navy Blue Angels, and a live concert by your favorite musicians. You deserve all that and more.

Kudos, also, to the tremendous NCCHC staff under the leadership of Chief Executive Officer Deborah Ross, as well as the dedicated surveyors, board members, committee members, and all the volunteers who work to uphold the NCCHC mission.

I hope to see all of you in Chicago at the National Conference, where I will turn over the reins to Sam Soltis, the next chair. We can celebrate in person and enjoy our friendships once again, even if we need to wear masks as we do so.

In the meantime, take of yourself, appreciate the little things in life, focus on the important stuff, “move the rock” (as needed), and don’t forget to breathe. 

Joseph V. Penn, MD, CCHP-MH, is the 2021 chair of NCCHC’s Board of Representatives and board liaison of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law.

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