Help for the healers: The Wellness Project providing free support for local medical workers

Cameron Ortega (Courtesy photo)

Healthcare professionals have dedicated themselves to caring for the community during the COVID-19 pandemic, and now a group of instructors at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley says it’s their turn to heal.

About two weeks ago, UTRGV’s School of Rehabilitation Services & Counseling launched The Wellness Project, an initiative that offers free counseling and therapy sessions to local medical workers.

Cameron Ortega, the clinical director of the school’s Wellness Counseling Clinic who founded the project, says therapy for those on the frontlines of the pandemic — especially those a part of the local healthcare muscle — is crucial for their mental well-being.

As the community has been asked to shelter at home, the jobs of medical professionals have never been more important.

“These medical workers are isolated from their family and friends too, but they are also going to work and seeing firsthand what is happening to members of our community,” Ortega said. “They are with patients at their worst when family members couldn’t be, and it’s hard being a witness to so much grief.”

During the summer surge of virus cases in the region, local hospitals and morgues were reaching capacity limits.

On July 22, there were 1,080 people with the virus in local hospitals, the county’s highest hospitalization number so far.

“Medical workers still had to do their jobs and it takes a toll on a person to be there and face this pandemic and then still go home and figure out what their new normal is and take care of their own family,” Ortega said.

“We knew the need and we had the ability, so we decided to do something for the community as far as helping our frontline medical workers.”

The Wellness Project offers medical care providers — nurses, doctors, EMTs, ect. — with four to six individual telecounseling sessions by UTRGV faculty who are licensed professional counselors.

Though it may not be the case for everyone, Ortega said, the risks of prolonging counseling when it’s needed can lead to long-term mental health problems, including compassion fatigue, PTSD and anxiety.

“They go to work when it’s chaotic and it’s sad,” she said. “They see how high the death rates are and they are seeing it on a daily basis. As prepared as you think you can be, it’s really different when it’s really happening… It’s really normal for it to take a toll on a person and being able to provide an outlet to tell someone about your experiences is important to process it.”

As of Tuesday, there were 159 people with the virus in Hidalgo County hospitals, which is nearly 700% less than the peak of the county’s hospitalization rate. Last week, the state announced the region is no longer considered the Valley as a high-hospitalization area, since hospitals were not 15% over capacity.

As the reports of COVID-19 cases begin to ebb, what’s left is emotional trauma and stress.

Recovering from the mental toll of the pandemic is going to take time and a collective effort, Ortega said, and it should start by helping those who have been on the frontlines: medical workers.

“As a community we just need to work together and come to our healing,” she said. “I think we are all just adjusting and trying to manage the best we can and accept that this is really hard but also know that you are not alone in it.”

Healthcare workers can schedule an appointment with The Wellness Project by emailing srsccounselingcenter@utrgv.edu.

Appointments can be made for any time of the day, and bilingual counselors are also available.