Voices from the front line: Maintaining connections to help the helpers

Hands holding letters in the air that spell Support

For more than 15 years, I’ve valued my connections with my St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital colleagues.

The hospital, always bustling with activity, holds many memories.

I love squeezing into the Marlo Thomas Center Auditorium for a town hall meeting or the annual State of St. Jude address. I bear witness to the stories of staff members during Schwartz Rounds, a forum for discussing challenging and sometimes emotionally painful patient-care issues. I cherish the moments I spend catching up with my team before staff meetings and after rounds. When I walk to the Kay Kafe, it’s comforting to pass familiar faces in the halls.

These interactions give me the boost I need to get through the day.

They create this sense of connectedness that supports my work as a pediatric psychologist. I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way.

That connectedness based on physical proximity came to a halt when the pandemic arrived. In March 2020, we closed the Psychology Clinic doors and transitioned to providing services via telehealth.

As we packed our things, I worried about what this change might mean for patients and families. Later, I realized that physical distancing and other pandemic-related stressors also affected employees.

On- and off-campus employees felt disconnected, isolated, uncertain and afraid. Those are the same feelings — experienced more profoundly —  that my fellow psychologists and I strive to ease in patients and families when they first learn of a life-threatening medical diagnosis.

We needed ways to help the helpers during the pandemic so they could continue to provide patients and families with excellent care.  Fortunately, St. Jude has a history of supporting its employees’ physical and emotional well-being. It includes an array of programs, such as the Living Well Center and the Staff Resilience Center.

Hospital leadership recognized immediately that the pandemic increased the need for employee support while presenting unique challenges to its delivery. We created the COVID-19 Support Line to respond to employees' worries and personal struggles.

The psychosocial staff took calls and offered psychological first aid as needed. Other employee programs — Resilience Rounds, online mental health resources — strengthened the response.

My colleagues and I recently described these initiatives to boost employee well-being from a distance in the Journal of Psychosocial Oncology.

The decision letter from the journal praised our contribution, saying, “Your manuscript will serve as a model for others to replicate in their institutions to support staff at the front lines.”  Of course, I was happy to read that, but not nearly as delighted to think that we might have helped colleagues in distress.

The Psychology Clinic didn’t stay locked for long. We re-opened in June 2020. Today, when I pass my patients and colleagues in the hall, I once again feel that same sense of comfort. You might not be able to tell, but behind the mask, I’m smiling.

This article is the first in a series about the art of psychosocial oncology featuring St. Jude Psychosocial Services staff.

The study's first author is Niki Jurbergs, PhD, Department of Psychology. Other St. Jude authors are Janet Sellers, LCSW, St. Jude Staff Resilience Center; Mark Brown, MDiv, BCC, Department of Spiritual Care Services; Kristin Canavera, PhD, Department of Psychology; and Valerie Crabtree, PhD, Psychosocial Services chief.

About the Author

Niki Jurbergs

Niki Jurbergs, PhD, is an associate faculty member and clinic director of the Psychology Department at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. View full bio.