Earlier than his demise, he warned of pandemic’s toll on nurses

In early 2020, Michael Odell sensed that Covid-19 would hit arduous. A younger intensive care nurse who traveled to hospitals needing an additional hand, he advised his household that demand for individuals like him was surging.

By April 2, just some weeks into what had change into an environment of worry and mass demise, he was fearful in regards to the toll on well being care staff. He had been standing in for households barred from the bedside, watching repeated scenes of affected person after affected person deteriorating.

“I’m already feeling the emotional burnout of caring for sufferers who, regardless of some being the sickest they’ve ever been, are unable to have their family members by them,” Odell wrote on Fb that day. “What do you say to somebody who’s dealing with demise and may’t have their family members with them?”


Odell, who grew up in Muskogee, Okla., completed nursing faculty at age 20. He liked languages and was proud that he may translate for his Spanish-speaking sufferers. He had a candy tooth, too. He all the time had a inventory of Skittles, and typically carried them round in a urine pattern cup to amuse his fellow nurses.

“I really feel for them as deep as human empathy can enable,” Odell wrote about his struggling Covid sufferers, “however I worry the long-term results this will likely have on each medical employee navigating this pandemic and in these conditions. Please don’t assume me egocentric; I get that my stage of ‘struggling’ can’t evaluate to what these sufferers and their households are experiencing. However the truth is that I’ve a tremendous help system and individuals who love me and inform me ceaselessly that they do; I worry for many who don’t.”

“I really feel for them as deep as human empathy can enable.”

Michael Odell, writing about his Covid sufferers

That month, Odell tried to kill himself. And in January of this yr, amid one other Covid-19 wave, Odell walked out of his shift early one morning whereas working at Stanford Well being Care. He died in an obvious suicide. He was 27.


The nation is approaching 1 million documented Covid-19 deaths, a as soon as unimaginable milestone that invitations us to take inventory of the manifold harms inflicted by the pandemic. This contains the psychological well being battering that nurses, specifically, have endured with little consideration whilst they poured consideration on others.

A suicide demise can’t be neatly defined. It’s not a easy trigger and impact, like how a pathogen infiltrates the lungs and kills. As an alternative, it’s sometimes the results of a confluence of things. Odell, as an illustration, had been coping with melancholy. Consultants observe that even during times of immense trauma, it’s a small minority of people that can have ideas of suicide, and much fewer will act on it.

However it’s additionally true that nurses — who research counsel had increased pre-pandemic suicide charges not simply than most of the people, however medical doctors as properly — have withstood challenges of each larger depth and length than ever earlier than. They had been a typically invisible phalanx of frontline staff, counseling households remotely by means of their grief and taking the brunt of their rage over hospital insurance policies, humanizing sufferers’ final days tethered to machines, and absorbing a barrage of demise in a profession that drilled into them that their precedence was serving to these very sufferers.

“I might gladly have him look after any one among my household, family members, as a result of I do know they might be in good palms, as a result of he was simply that good of a nurse,” Michael Walujo, Odell’s pal and fellow nurse, advised the individuals gathered at a vigil quickly after Odell died. “And he advocated for you, no matter what.”

“And above all, Michael Odell made you’re feeling seen,” Walujo continued. “He genuinely made you’re feeling seen. He made you’re feeling essential. He made you’re feeling that you just mattered, and we do matter.”

Odell with pal Michael Walujo whereas touring in Peru in 2019. Courtesy Michael Walujo

Odell and friends
Odell with pals in Miami in 2016. Courtesy Michael Walujo

Growing up, Odell’s laptop acted as a gateway to the world, along with a spot to play video games. He discovered pen buddies in Sweden and defined to his older brothers Brad and Patrick the variations between Swedish and Finnish and Icelandic. His brothers leveraged Michael’s time on the laptop to their profit too. When Brad was an adolescent, within the pre-iPhone days, he knew he may name Michael at house with a query — what time did Sonic shut? — and Michael would fortunately look it up. “My very own little smartphone, only a name away,” Brad mentioned.

Odell got here out as homosexual in center faculty and even then was adamant about being himself. In interviews in current weeks, a number of of his pals individually talked about that Odell was youthful than them, however that they appeared as much as him. They treasured his kindness and his intelligence (e-book smarts, although not all the time frequent sense — he as soon as trapped himself in a toilet whereas putting in a lock on the door). They admired him, too, for his sense of enjoyable, and for the best way he confirmed up in individuals’s lives once they wanted it most.

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His household referred to as him Mike, whereas pals referred to as him Woodhouse, a nickname from the TV present “Archer.” He had a cat named Marge. He had a skepticism that veered into stubbornness when others wished him to do one thing, however when he acquired on board, he was on board.

Odell had a prized Crockpot, and was militant about following recipes. As soon as, when his pal John LeBlanc — additionally a crucial care nurse — was making rooster parm with out directions, Odell watched in disbelief: How did LeBlanc know the way a lot seasoning so as to add? How did he know when the rooster was accomplished with no thermometer?

“He may make the most effective pot roast on the earth however I nonetheless needed to train him learn how to fry a rooster breast,” LeBlanc mentioned.

He and his pal Stratton Brooks would keep up all night time taking part in video games like League of Legends and speaking about their hopes and goals, after which Odell would go and make his occur. He perfected his Spanish in Argentina and Mexico. He took language courses in Italy.

Odell grew to become a nurse as a result of he cared deeply about others, however he was additionally sensible, those that knew him mentioned. It could present a stable profession, one which paid properly. Journey nursing specifically would let him see new locations and earn him much more cash. Plus, he was the form of man who picked up pals wherever he went.

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For all of the pandemic’s devastation, tracked in case counts and demise tallies, a lot of it has transpired behind closed doorways in remoted hospital models. Even the images that emerged from Covid rooms felt impersonal. There can be a affected person, cloaked in tubes, and an usually solitary well being care employee, encased in PPE to the purpose of anonymity. They appeared extra hazmat than human.

However beneath these shields and masks, these gloves and goggles, had been people like Odell.

Vital care nurses advised STAT that it wasn’t simply the magnitude of demise that has worn them down the previous two years, however what these deaths grew to become.

Earlier than the pandemic, when somebody was approaching demise, “as a lot household as you would match within the room” can be there, LeBlanc mentioned. They introduced in blankets and photos. Religion leaders may come, and folks would sing and share reminiscences. It made the method by some means constructive, not only for households, however for the nurses, too.

Covid made it lonely.

Nurses may spend hours by themselves in a room with a sedated affected person, choosing up the work of a nutritionist, bodily therapist, or respiratory therapist to reduce individuals going out and in. Docs solely arrived for sure procedures. Chaplains didn’t come round.

“It was me,” mentioned Kelsey Vandersteen, a crucial care nurse in Wisconsin. Households would video name, however past that, “The one interplay the affected person had was my contact. Me speaking to them. Me placing on their favourite music.”

And but, between smile-blocking masks and the absence of households who may inform tales, it was tougher to construct relationships with their sufferers, lots of whom had been unconscious. It created a dissonance: Nurses felt alienated from their sufferers, however in some ways, extra affected once they misplaced them.

Nurses had been having to facilitate households’ goodbyes, holding up iPads so they may see the affected person one final time. It uncovered them to remaining moments they won’t usually hear. It made the bulwarks they imposed towards demise extra penetrable.

“Having to take the function of the household whereas additionally attempting to maintain a ways so that you don’t break each time, that may make the brunt of every demise tougher,” mentioned Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington College in St. Louis who makes a speciality of well being care employee psychological well being.

Having so many sufferers who had been so sick additionally weighed on nurses. Notably within the early days, earlier than they knew which therapies labored, it felt like nothing may cease individuals’s declines. Stretched skinny, nurses doubted the standard of care they had been offering. All of the whereas, they confronted the worry of contracting the virus themselves, and of bringing it house.

All that contributes to burnout and psychological well being points. Surveys of nurses have discovered that substantial parts of them felt unhappy or depressed extra usually than earlier than the pandemic, and felt traumatized.

“It’s painful on the nurse as a result of they know what needs to be accomplished, however can’t be accomplished,” mentioned Judy Davidson, a nurse scientist at UC San Diego Well being Sciences, who has studied suicide amongst nurses.

Kathryn Sherman, a crucial care nurse in Tennessee, described the lull final summer time, when her hospital was seeing extra non-Covid sufferers. “It was nearly like a return to regular nursing, once we may really assist individuals,” she mentioned.

Vandersteen’s hospital is now getting again to plain routines round demise. Totally different well being care staff cycle out and in. Extra relations are there. “Oh, my God,” she mentioned. “It’s one thousand instances simpler.”

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In April 2020, when Odell tried suicide, house was in Minnesota together with his then-boyfriend, however he was working at a hospital within the Bay Space. He described nursing on the time as “demise after demise after demise,” his pal Walujo remembers him saying. He and his colleagues spoke about feeling they needed to placed on blinders to deal with what was occurring, and at instances they embraced darkish humor: one other shift, one other spherical of deaths. However nobody realized that Odell was struggling so intensely.

Afterward, Odell advised his brother Brad that he had stopped caring about issues.

Odell headed again to Minnesota, began taking antidepressants, and commenced seeing a therapist and psychiatric nurse practitioner. His pals initiated Wellness Wednesdays, an opportunity to verify in on how the others had been doing or simply to vent. On Fb, Odell used his birthday in June 2020 to ask for donations to the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“Having to take the function of the household whereas additionally attempting to maintain a ways so that you don’t break each time, that may make the brunt of every demise tougher.”

Jessi Gold, psychiatrist at Washington College in St. Louis

Brooks, in the meantime, used Odell’s birthdays to let him know the way glad he was that he had been born. “I’m studying now that you just shouldn’t wait till somebody’s birthday to inform them that,” Brooks mentioned.

Odell gave the impression to be doing higher over the months. Final fall, he moved from Minnesota to San Francisco, the place he had a powerful community of pals, lots of whom had been nurses and a few of whom — like Walujo and one other pal, Josh Paredes — additionally grew up in Oklahoma. Odell took over the spare room in Paredes’ Castro house.

Over Thanksgiving, Odell visited household in Oklahoma, and Brad’s household in Missouri. Brad and Michael went for a run collectively for the primary time.

“We may have accomplished that for many years,” Brad mentioned.

In December, Odell began his contract at Stanford. This was in the course of the Omicron surge, a time when, nationally, sufferers — Covid and different varieties — as soon as once more overflowed hospitals, and infections amongst clinicians strained employees numbers.

Odell was working within the neuro-ICU, however typically needed to “float” to different departments as a result of the hospital was so busy, Paredes mentioned. The one change in Odell’s habits was that he was sleeping extra, however Paredes figured that was due to how a lot Odell was working.

After which, early on Jan. 18, Odell left the unit, telling others that he was grabbing one thing from his automotive. His automotive was later situated off the aspect of the highway throughout the Bay from Stanford. His physique was discovered two days later in a close-by wildlife refuge. Whereas the Alameda County coroner’s workplace has not made an official dedication, the indications are that Odell died by suicide.

Odell’s pals have been wrestling with the unanswerable query of whether or not one thing may have gone in another way. They’ve heard nothing out of the extraordinary occurred on his shift, however whereas Odell walked out round 4:30 a.m., he didn’t go away the parking storage till roughly 7:30 a.m. When Odell went lacking, his co-workers referred to as safety and searched all through the hospital and storage, however turned up nothing.

His pals have puzzled: Throughout these three hours, was he hoping somebody would come discover him?

David Hernandez, an affiliate nurse advocate with Stanford’s nurses union, mentioned the well being system ought to have a plan ought to somebody go away their shift, and that it shouldn’t be as much as different well being care staff to go searching. He mentioned Stanford, with which the union is in contract negotiations, hasn’t taken such steps since Odell’s demise, so nurses have began sharing their license plate numbers and households’ contact data.

“The nurses have found out that we’ve to give you a system on our personal,” mentioned Hernandez, who works within the emergency division.

In a press release, Stanford spokesperson Julie Greicius mentioned the well being system is “dedicated to offering a full complement of psychological well being and wellness advantages,” and is “regularly updating our insurance policies and procedures to help our worker’s bodily and psychological well-being.”

“Whereas Michael Odell, a touring nurse, was with Stanford Well being Look after one month, he was a valued member of our group,” the assertion mentioned. “We’re deeply saddened and mourn this loss, as do those that labored alongside him.”

Michael and brothers as kids
Odell (far proper) together with his brothers Brad and Patrick in Muskogee, Okla. Courtesy Brad Odell

Since Odell’s demise, his pal LeBlanc has been studying research about clinicians and psychological well being. The literature makes clear that nurses haven’t been the precedence, that their emotions of invisibility and even disposability in the course of the pandemic are usually not new. “Most of what’s identified about suicide amongst well being care clinicians originated from research of physicians,” one 2021 paper mentioned, citing “only a few empirical research of suicide amongst US nurses.” A 2018 report from the Nationwide Academy of Medication famous that there have been “no public information figuring out a nationwide nurse suicide fee, but information on suicide charges had been available for physicians, lecturers, cops, firefighters, and navy personnel.”

More moderen analysis has discovered that nurses’ suicide charges are increased than these of physicians, however many well being programs nonetheless make investments extra in doctor wellness, UCSD’s Davidson mentioned. “We want to ensure the assets being put into place for physicians, that the employees have a minimum of equal assets,” she mentioned.

Well being care staff usually fear about in search of assist for psychological well being, fearing they’ll be stigmatized or that it may jeopardize their licenses. Journey nurses specifically might face increased dangers for these points. Due to the excessive wages that journey nurses command, which have skyrocketed in the course of the pandemic, there may be typically pressure between them and employees nurses. Journey nurses sometimes don’t qualify for hospitals’ worker wellness packages. And simply by the character of their jobs — transferring from hospital to hospital — vacationers lack social help at work: the chums they will decompress with or who will decide them up once they’re struggling.

Tlisted here are indicators that the pandemic has compelled the nation to take extra significantly well being care staff’ psychological well being. In January — by coincidence, on the identical day Odell’s physique was recovered — the Biden administration introduced greater than $100 million in awards to stem burnout. Final week, President Biden signed a bill named for Lorna Breen, the New York doctor who died by suicide early within the pandemic, that creates grants to deal with psychological well being amongst clinicians and trainees.

“There’s a lot larger consciousness in most of the people of those points,” mentioned Corey Feist, Breen’s brother-in-law.

Suicide is mostly the results of a number of components, and Odell’s household and pals have weighed the stressors Odell had past work, together with his melancholy. His begin date at Stanford was delayed, Paredes mentioned, so Odell appeared fearful about cash. Brad mentioned that his brother “wasn’t dealt a simple hand” rising up homosexual in Oklahoma, although Odell’s pals mentioned he by no means appeared unsettled by the challenges he confronted when he was youthful. Odell’s mom died in August, after years of decline brought on by a type of early-onset dementia. “We had been all actually near our mother, had a whole lot of respect for her,” Brad mentioned. “She all the time wished a lady, however raised three rowdy boys.”

Odell had a provide of treatment in his belongings after he died, so he hadn’t run out. However Paredes mentioned Odell had but to ascertain care with a psychological well being supplier after transferring to California.

“We all know that having efficient psychological well being care, and staying in efficient psychological well being care, is massively crucial for safeguarding from suicide threat,” mentioned Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Basis for Suicide Prevention.

If somebody had underlying psychological well being points, the stress of nursing may exacerbate that. “That’s the place the pandemic layer can actually tip somebody again into being depressed or being extremely weak,” Moutier mentioned.

As they’ve grieved, Odell’s household and pals have additionally been holding onto the small issues, letting their reminiscences of Michael fill their minds. How on the films he would simply dump salt on the popcorn. How it will take him without end to get by means of a meal as a result of he would discuss a lot. How when a pal was being lazy or was complaining after a tough day, Odell’s message to pep them up was, “You higher transfer these hips.” How he jokingly would by no means admit when he was mistaken, however then how he would unexpectedly provide a pal probably the most significant praise.

Odell’s pals are beginning a corporation in his honor devoted to advocating for nurses and offering peer help.

Quickly after Odell died, his family members held a vigil within the Bay Space. There have been loads of Skittles to go round.

One one that attended had been his affected person at Stanford, after she had tried to kill herself. Odell had harassed to her that she mattered, she advised his household and pals. She would all the time be grateful, she mentioned, as a result of whereas Odell didn’t know her beforehand, he confirmed up in her life when she wanted it most.