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March 21, 2021

Memorial & meditation: Doctor says ‘It is from the intensity of the loss we felt’

IU Health Arnett Hospital

Memorial & meditation: Doctor says ‘It is from the intensity of the loss we felt’

Deep sadness, feelings of helplessness, and overwhelming anxiety of what’s to come - medical professionals have lived it all in the past year. And now, one doctor is helping his team members discover and recover in the aftermath of emotional devastation.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes tfender1@iuhealth.org

At first, Dr. Aaron Villarreal didn’t see the “break” as anything special. But the responses of his team members speak volumes. It is exactly what they needed.

Hours and hours of caring for the most critical patients – both COVID and non-COVID - took its toll on nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists, technicians, and other caregivers. Sometimes they didn’t even recognize or acknowledge their stress.

At IU Health Arnett, Villarreal recognized his own depression. He knew he needed to face it. And in facing it he offered a hand to his coworkers.

On a recent Friday at noon in late February, staff members gathered around the nurses’ station in the Progressive Care Unit. The break only lasted a few minutes but it was enough time for them to reflect and remember. It was enough time for them to acknowledge their grief and celebrate their triumphs.

As they paused, Villarreal, affectionately known as “Dr. V.” spoke. “The purpose for this is to pause and remember. When there has been such a concentration of a pandemic, this is a time for us to connect with our community. This is our job,” said Villarreal. He recited the numbers: In the month of December 2020, there were 24 patients who died from COVID. Since last spring, IU Health Arnett has had 67 COVID deaths, and already since the beginning of December 2021, there have been nearly 80 deaths throughout the hospital.

“This is also a moment to reflect about yourself and know that we are here to help you,” said Villarreal. He then invited team members to share their losses and place a flower petal into a jar next to a candle.

Nurses Amanda Casselberry and Tomi Goodman both stepped forward and dropped petals in the jar. They have been progressive care nurses for three years. They both shared losses of those in their care – a woman who passed with cancer, a young man in his 20s, and another patient whose last wish was to be married.

Goodman was part of making that patient’s wish a reality. COVID restricted visitation so they dressed the patient up and planned a Face time ceremony with her fiancé who lived out of state. COVID claimed her life shortly afterward.

The phone calls and virtual contacts were the hardest for Villarreal.

“Trying to tell a story over a phone and convey what’s going on to people on the other end who are desperate is tough. The nurses took the brunt of it. For some who worked three-day shifts it was every day they were holding an I pad for a dying patient to connect with a family,” said Villarreal. He started the remembrance ceremony in December as a way of connecting the staff with their shared losses. It has been so welcomed that it continues.

“In December there were four patients that died on my first week on and ten in the second week and eight were COVID. I said, ‘this is too much and if we don’t acknowledge what is happening, we will be in big trouble. It was from the intensity of the loss we felt that we gathered to pause and reflect,” said Villarreal.

His introduction to medicine came from his father, a family practitioner.

“He was the original ‘Dr. V,’ a great primary care doctor. I was lucky that I went to a high school that offered anatomy and physiology. I didn’t even know I liked science but when I got into it I soaked it up and dad was there to teach more than my teacher did,” said Villarreal. He attended IU School of Medicine and met his wife, Dr. Kathleen Williamson, an ophthalmologist, in anatomy class. They started dating in 2008 and were married in 2015 – the same year Villarreal joined IU Health.

When COVID struck they had just had their first child, a boy.

“The actual job was tough but there were intense personal challenges. I was depressed. I’m a new dad, and our unit became the ‘COVID place,’ with the sickest patients. There was so much we didn’t know and I worried about the patients and I worried about bringing it home,” said Villarreal.

It was his wife who introduced Villarreal to meditation.

“I wasn’t even someone who paid attention to my mental wellness, but the effect has been profound. It’s making me a better doctor, dad, and husband,” said Villarreal. He was so moved by the peace that he found through mindfulness that he began facilitating short meditation sessions with his co-workers in the progressive care unit.

A patient joined one recent session.

“Meditation built resilience and allowed me to recognize the places in my life where I’m very grateful,” said Villarreal. “It gave me self-compassion - not to be so hard on myself when I’m tired at the end of the day. And the most important thing was it has taught me to separate an emotion and how to respond to the emotion. I see how it breaks up my day and gives me a moment of joy and I wanted to share that joy with others – to allow us to be together in a shared space and just pause.”

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