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July 22, 2020

Emergency room psychiatric nurse offers compassion, comfort during pandemic

Debbi Dillon Yeoman is one of those people who instinctively runs toward a crisis, not away from it. Her work in 2020 is no different.

Yeoman is a 27-year veteran of psychiatric nursing. She has spent most of her career at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She currently is a member of the Emergency Room Behavior Response Team.

Essential workers, and healthcare workers in particular, have been working in environments where tasks are changing from moment to moment. Yeoman attests to that.

“In the first few weeks of the coronavirus shutdown, our unit’s work in the ER was quieter than usual,” she said. “While patient load might have been lower, we prepared for the unknown ahead of us by learning about the virus, studying guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and then adjusting as new recommendations changed almost daily. There was a lot of uncertainty with what we were facing. That uncertainty continues even today.”

Caring for the caregivers

Yeoman credits the work of her teammates in offering comfort and compassion for patients who are feeling anxious while trying to cope during these uncertain times. Patients with COVID-19 need care, but Yeoman said her team is also helping healthcare providers deal with emotions they feel with working long hours to care for COVID-19 patients.

“It’s been painful and disturbing to see the toll this pandemic is taking on everyone,” Yeoman said. “But it’s been heartwarming to know that our unit is able to throw out a lifeline and wrap our arms around our fellow nurses, doctors and emergency personnel who sometimes feel overwhelmed.”

Social isolation is also emotionally impacting people throughout the community, Yeoman pointed out.

“Even the strongest people we know can be experiencing feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, sadness and depression because we are all doing our part to control the coronavirus through social distancing,” she said.

Yeoman predicts that a surge in mental health issues will be a side effect our community, our country and the world will be dealing with long after this pandemic is over. She said it won’t be just people who have struggled with mental health issues in the past, but a whole new generation or cohort of individuals who will be experiencing mental health issues for the first time.

Checking on others is key

“It’s imperative to reach out and check on family, friends and neighbors,” she noted. “Give them a call, send an email or write a letter. Let them know you care and offer to help them the best you can. Taking care of each other will work wonders.”

During this time of back-to-back 60-hour work weeks, Yeoman said she draws strength and motivation by thinking about her mom, Elizabeth Dillon. She passed away in 2017 at age 84 – the oldest current working professor in the Johnson County Community College Nursing Program. She taught Certified Medical Assistant (CMA) courses. Teaching at JCCC was Dillon’s second career, after retiring as a nurse practitioner. Dillon and Yeoman were both professors in the JCCC nursing program, teaching side-by-side for some time.

“My mom was the most compassionate, caring and strongest person I knew,” Yeoman said. “I often think about her during this challenging time we are living in and think about how she would react to all this uncertainty. I think I am doing what she would do, and I hope that she and my dad are looking down on me and are very proud of me.”

Honoring her mother

Because Yeoman wants others to be touched by the compassion of her mother, she recently established the Elizabeth J. Dillon Scholarship at JCCC for students just starting out in healthcare education and taking CMA classes. Yeoman is even making the scholarship a “forever thing” in her mom’s memory by using money she’s earning with her COVID-19 overtime hours to make the scholarship an endowment.

As a “wiser” nurse (Yeoman’s affectionate term for older, experienced healthcare professionals), Yeoman knows she is in the high-risk category for contracting COVID-19. However, she suits up with personal protective equipment and faces each situation head-on. She knows her expertise and assistance is needed.

“We are all just doing our part to get this pandemic under control,” Yeoman said.