Mariam Zakhary, an assistant professor in Mount Sinai Hospital’s department of rehabilitation medicine, remembers what 7 pm sounded like in Manhattan last April: residents clapping and cheering for frontline health care workers as they ended their shifts. It’s 2021—the celebrations have mostly stopped, Covid-19 cases are rising, and our medical workers are experiencing mental anguish well beyond burnout.
Before the pandemic, doctors died by suicide at double the rate of the US population. Covid-19 has strained health care workers’ capacity to bear witness to grievous suffering. A team of artists, technologists, neuroscientists, and medical researchers came together and created recharge rooms to tackle this problem.
Zakhary works in Mount Sinai’s post-acute Covid-19 clinic with “long haulers,” individuals still suffering post-Covid-19 symptoms, months after being diagnosed.
“It’s scary,” she says. “I see marathon runners who are unable to go up and down stairs, and attorneys unable to string proper sentences together without word searching due to severe ‘brain fog.’ We have seen thousands and have thousands more on the waitlist.”
She’s bracing for a surge of need in the coming months. “The worst is yet to come,” she says. “The hardest thing to say to these patients is that we don’t know what’s going on, but we are going to do our best to treat it. I’m not sure that was ever something we had to say to a patient, that science has failed us, and we can’t figure out the pathology.”
The long hours and difficult treatments take their toll on health care workers as well. For reference, some experts look back to 9/11 for clues about what the future will look like for frontline workers. In a 2020 study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, Mount Sinai researchers found 26.8 percent of police and 46 percent of “nontraditional responders,” such as construction workers, had PTSD symptoms 12 years after 9/11. These findings emphasize the importance of treating subthreshold PTSD for first responders.
A recent study from Italy, where the pandemic raged months earlier than in the US, offers more insight. All of the health care providers who were studied experienced a high level of psychological distress, suggesting that immense personal and emotional involvement in facing this grueling period can put their psychological health at risk in the near future.
Long before the summer’s spike in Covid-19 cases,, David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation at Mount Sinai, converted his neuroscience research lab into a nature-inspired relaxation space for frontline health care workers.
Putrino collaborated with Mirelle Phillips and her team at Studio Elsewhere to design and install the multisensory recharge rooms. The rooms use biophilic design principles, or decor that mimics nature, and the idea is that this can support healing. Phillips designed comfort and tranquility spaces to connect health care workers to nature to offset the hospital’s otherwise sterile environment. Biophilic design is also more than adding plants to indoor spaces. It’s an interior design philosophy intended to improve people’s mental and physical well-being.
Phillips, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, wants to leverage emerging technologies to address health inequity—to design a more imaginative, inclusive, and connective experience of health, well-being, and care. “We’re on a mission to be co-creative with the communities we serve and ensure we get our interventions out to vulnerable populations who often get it last,” she says.
Phillips called on Jacob Marshall at EMBC Studio, his partner, Hai-Jin Marshall, and award-winning violinist Tim Fain to create immersive audio for the recharge rooms. “We built upon Mirelle’s ongoing work on how design with nature helps heal us and to use technology and artistry to deliver an immersive multisensory aesthetic experience that could break the cycle of stress and burnout,” says Marshall.