Staff at North Dakota State Hospital treat COVID, mental health issues

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Nursing work in a psychiatric hospital can be challenging, according to Sarah Berg, a charge nurse at the North Dakota State Hospital in Jamestown.

“If you feel you are cut out for it, I definitely recommend it,” she said, “but it is not for the faint of heart. Definitely a little bit of an adventure.”

Berg recommends the work for those who want to help people.

“It takes a special person for the job,” she said. “If you are that special person, it is very rewarding.”

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One of the challenges in the past year has been dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, according to Rosalie Etherington, superintendent of the State Hospital.

“The State Hospital is the only psychiatric hospital in the statewide pandemic bed surge plan (designated to treat COVID patients),” she said. “It could take COVID patients from the three specialized care nursing facilities around the state.”

Berg was the charge nurse at the COVID unit during the surge late in 2020.

“It was trying to make a psychiatric facility into a medical unit overnight,” she said.

In a psychiatric unit, patients are encouraged to engage in group social activities as part of psychiatric treatment.

“In a COVID unit you try to keep people isolated to prevent the spread of the disease,” Berg said. “It is almost the exact opposite. It was a challenge for patients and staff.”

Even the personal protection equipment the staff wore in the COVID unit could stress the patients.

“The only part of the staff they saw was the eyes,” Berg said.

Early in the pandemic, the COVID unit at the North Dakota State Hospital usually had three to five patients. During the height of the surge in November and December, the patient count went as high as 12 patients at one time. The unit has since been shut down as COVID numbers within psychiatric facilities have declined.

“We haven’t had a positive test patient test for COVID in quite some time,” Berg said.

Berg’s normal duty at the North Dakota State Hospital is as charge nurse in a rehabilitation ward.

Etherington said the nurses and other medical workers at the State Hospital were important workers in maintaining the continuous operations of North Dakota’s only state hospital.

“Essential workers are our primary and critical patient care staff,” she said. “Without them, we could not exist.”

Berg said her goal is to help the patient transition to independence.

“We push to give the patients more independence,” she said. “My normal days are pretty busy depending on the patients and their moods.”

Normally, Berg spends her time with between 18 and 24 patients during her shift. Her time with the patients sometimes makes her feel like a “mom” to the patients in her charge.

“Arranging activities,” she said. “Serving as a person they can confide in, de-escalating any situation that gets too intense.”

Etherington said the work of the staff through the coronavirus pandemic was important.

“Their kindness and perseverance are heroic,” she said. “I can never adequately express my gratitude and admiration for their tireless care.”

Berg has worked in the same ward since her internship during her college education. She has been on the hospital staff for about two years assigned to the same ward.

“My internship at the North Dakota State Hospital was a huge part of my education,” she said. “The internship gave me confidence.”

Berg said early in her education, she wasn’t sure what field she wanted to pursue.

“Psychiatric nursing wasn’t my first choice,” she said. “I did a lot of training here and I came to like the work.”

Following her husband’s job in the Jamestown area also contributed to her accepting a position at the State Hospital where she feels she is making a difference.

In psychiatric nursing there is always some sort of positive outcome however small,” she said.

The North Dakota State Hospital was authorized by the Dakota Territory in 1885 and has operated in Jamestown continuously since.

The current session of the North Dakota Legislature is considering authorizing the construction of a new facility built to modern medical standards.

“A new State Hospital, better equipped for modern psychiatric and medical care would enhance the excellent care of our staff and speed healing and recovery,” Etherington said.

At the time of this writing, action by the Legislature on the issue is not complete.

The North Dakota State Hospital is operated by the North Dakota Department of Human Services. It offers treatment for psychiatric patients, chemical abuse treatment and evaluation and treatment for sexual offenders.

The State Hospital’s accreditation by the Joint Commission was renewed in 2019.

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