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CU researchers take aim at PTSD, burnout in the ICU

More than a decade ago, Meredith Mealer embarked on research that has only increased in relevance with the passing years.
The study focused on the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among survivors of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a devastating lung disorder. Mealer, PhD, RN, was then a research coordinator, working on the study with Marc Moss, MD, a pulmonary/critical care physician leading the effort. As Mealer paged through the symptoms patients and families reported – nightmares, high stress, emotional numbing, anxiety attacks – some struck her close to home. Prior to shifting her focus to clinical research, Mealer had been an intensive care unit nurse.
“As a bedside nurse, I had some of those symptoms,” she recalled.
Marc Moss
Marc Moss, MD, is helping move discussions of critical-care provider burnout – and possible responses – to the national mainstream.
It sparked her curiosity, which led to her informally touching base with ICU nurses who had decided to leave the bedside. They spoke of nightmares, anxiety attacks, and sleep problems. They said things like, “I was so stressed out I had to get out of the ICU.”
She suggested to Moss that PTSD among ICU nurses might itself merit studying. After all, ICU nurses face the constant stresses of keeping the sickest of patients alive; of interacting with panicked, shocked, and despondent family members; and of watching patients die despite having cared for them day in and day out during 12-hour shifts.
That was in 2002, at Emory University. Fourteen years later, Mealer is the director of the Colorado Multiple Institutional Review Board (COMIRB) and assistant professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine & Rehabilitation. Moss is the School of Medicine’s vice chair for Clinical Research and a professor of pulmonary sciences and critical care medicine. Mealer’s initial realization has yielded several path-breaking studies on the prevalence of PTSD as well as that of anxiety, depression, and burnout syndrome (BOS) among ICU nurses, including those at University of Colorado Hospital.