• CRNA Founds the Dream Big Wellness Support Group Amidst COVID-19

    By Donte Flanagan, DNP, CRNA

    The last two years have become the Era of Covid-19. My four months on the frontline, day after day, face-to-face with patients suffering from signs and symptoms of Covid-19 was the longest and most devastating and traumatic experience of my 20-year nursing career.

    After spending 3,750+ hours working in the hospital in 2020, equivalent to an average of 72 hours per week, my mind and body collapsed upon itself, and I knew it was time for me to step away to focus on my own well-being. The patient load, coupled with the endless debates surrounding masks, vaccines, mandates, and science took its toll on me. I decided it was time to seclude away for some much-needed respite. In the midst of all the attention being given to healthcare workers and frontline workers, I still felt isolated, unseen, and unheard.

    As 2021 came into focus, out of exhaustion or necessity or both, I decided it was time to focus on my own mental health and sensibilities. I decided to be less vocal. My empathy had waned, my sympathy was nearly absent, and I knew that state of mind was a dark place that I cared not to walk in daily.

    I turned inward to focus on self-reflection to find the spaces in my life where I was the happiest and most fulfilled. The activities that came to light included meditation, journaling, daily workouts, and time spent with friends and loved ones. I acknowledged that I neglected these activities during the pandemic, and I knew the only way back was to intentionally bring these things back into my life as soon as possible. These experiences and self-help behaviors were, and will always be, a necessary foundation of my life if I am to feel any sense of stability, peace, and sanity.

    As the partner of a therapist, I appreciate the value of mental health and the importance of meeting with an objective practitioner regularly to share your vulnerabilities and intimacies and obtain nonjudgmental, nonconfrontational feedback. I knew these pandemic-times would require more deliberate and intense work, so I increased the frequency and length of my appointments with my therapist. Over the course of 12-14 months these meetings helped ground me in the midst of the ongoing pandemic and allowed me to refocus my attention toward my own goals as a father, husband, friend, and philanthropist.

    During the year of pandemic 2020-2021, I was fortunate to make changes that would improve the quality of life for myself, my family, and others. After giving 70+ hours per week to my anesthesia staff job, I decided my family and I deserved a break, so, I decided I would take an extended paternity leave as well as a job change. This cut my weekly work hours in half. No longer was I burning the candles at both ends and leaving no time for my wife, daughter, and self. I was now prioritizing the Flanagan household.

    This change allowed me the chance to step back and truly acknowledge the importance of work-life balance and healthy work environments. Unfortunately, so many of my other colleagues are going through the same stressors that I did. I had the benefit of finding my own new balance of mental health, but I also recognized that not everyone has access to such resources. And then, it dawned on me that within our profession, our most vulnerable and at times easily forgotten members are our student registered nurse anesthetists (SRNAs).

    In the summer of 2021, we at the Bigger Dreams, Better Tomorrows Foundation, Inc., decided to do something to help SRNAs find balance, empowerment, and community by creating The Dream Big Wellness Support Group. As many former SRNAs including me can attest, being a nurse anesthesia student can be one of the most stressful time periods in one’s life, and it usually brings feelings of isolation inadequacy. The pandemic would make these feelings more pronounced due to being forced out of clinicals for months, with didactic and clinical education being disrupted and left in limbo.

    SRNAs balance on this line between being an experienced bed-side ICU nurse and an advanced practice anesthesia provider. . You want to be of use, but you cannot exactly help as an airway expert. Your increased knowledge base and newfound autonomy make it extremely difficult to be a mere slot holder for a scheduled shift back on the unit. Those students whose communities were being most affected by the pandemic, the African American and LatinX students, were particularly vulnerable to these added stressors.

    ‘Preparation meets opportunity’ and a new program was established to address the mental health and well-being of these students during these times of unplanned isolation. In July 2020, I teamed up with James Norris, Licensed Mental Health Counselor of Seattle, Wash., as we launched the first monthly meeting of the Dream Big Wellness Support Group.

    It was imperative that we create a safe and confidential space for these students to share stories of development and struggles while providing various tools for empowering themselves as they return to the classroom and the clinical setting. Research reveals that peer support groups have been successful due to the community it creates, the sharing of familiar stories, and the empowerment poured onto the participants via other clients in the circle1. Having celebrated our one-year anniversary, the Dream Big Wellness Support is here for the long haul as a tool and opportunity for nurse anesthesia programs across the country to actively support the mental health and well-being of today’s students, specifically those who represent the most vulnerable populations during and after the pandemic.



    1. Dodding, CJ, Nasel, D.D., Murphy, M., Howell, C. (2008). All in for mental health: a pilot study of group therapy for people experiencing anxiety and/or depression and a significant other of their choice. Mental Health Family Medicine, 5(1), 41-49.