Despite what Thomas Wolfe wrote, Julie Tingen knows you can go home again.
She’d been working at Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, for four years before leaving in June 2020. Like a lot of nurses, she left due to the unrelenting pressures of COVID. “I’m a positive person,” she said. “But when stress starts taking a physical toll, you have to do something. My arms had gone numb.”
“It was the pressure of trying to get everything done before the end of your shift so you could hand it off to the next team and then to pick it back up in the morning,” she added. “It was just so much at one time.”
She didn’t leave the health care field, though. She’s certified in gerontological nursing (Novant Health paid for her to get that certification as well as for her bachelor’s degree) and loves working with seniors. She joined a home health care agency, where she worked with a lot of people who’d been discharged from hospitals with home health care orders.
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The volume of COVID patients was straining hospital capacity. “They were discharged because someone else needed acute care more than they did,” she said.
Rather than working in individual homes, though, Tingen was assigned to senior living communities in the Greensboro/Winston-Salem/High Point area. She might be at a different one each day. She helped seniors transfer from hospitals back to their communities. “My job was to help clients stay as independent as possible for as long as possible,” she said.
She loved the work, her clients and her colleagues. But then it started getting really busy again, with lots of hours, lots of stress.
There was something else at play during this time. Tingen’s family faced their own challenges. Her father, who’s in the early stages of dementia, lives across the street. Her mother lives in a retirement community and has her own health issues. Tingen cares for both of them. In addition to those stressors, her husband, who retired during COVID, is facing his own health issues.
The Tingens have nine children – three of whom still live at home. They also have 10 grandchildren. After Tingen’s husband retired, it fell to her to provide the family with health insurance. “What it takes to carry insurance working for the home health care network, I could not fulfill physically, mentally, emotionally,” she said.
Something had to give.
She could come back to Forsyth Medical Center – to her old medical/surgical floor, 9 General – working part-time and paying a little extra each month for health insurance. “I'm able to carry insurance – great insurance – for all my family just by working two days a week,” she said. “It frees me up to be available for my family.”
Tingen works 24 hours a week — two 12-hour shifts. And, she can pick up more hours if she wants. It’s the right schedule for her and her family right now.
Just as when she worked for the home health care network, she enjoys the work, the patients, the co-workers. “I’ve been lucky,” she said. “I love Novant Health.”
For the most part, 9 General is comprised of the same team that was there before Tingen left. “Even the nurses who left come back and fill in occasionally, if needed,” she said. “It’s a great team.”
“Nine General – which has a large concentration of geriatric patients – can be a demanding place, but we’ve got the best team and the best teamwork,” she added. “We’ve worked together for so long that we all know the needs of other nurses and can jump in and take care of something when they’re busy.”
While she loves the elderly patients she often gets to work with, that population poses its own challenges. “They have a lot of chronic health problems,” Tingen said. “Caring for them takes more time. They may have feeding issues or mobility issues. They may be transitioning to hospice or palliative care. And a lot of times they're not fully ready yet, so we try to help them make that transition.”
It’s a special place, she said. It’s also less stressful than it was during the worst of COVID. There are fewer personal protective equipment (PPE) protocols, less testing, fewer people on high-flow oxygen.
Tingen’s advice for any nurse experiencing burnout: Take care of yourself. “If you don't put yourself first, you can't take care of anybody,” she said. “Do what you can do, and lean on your co-workers. We all can only do so much. Nurses, in general, often try to take care of everything. But we can’t if we don’t take care of ourselves first.”