When Denver-based nurse Tara Rynders almost lost her life to an ectopic pregnancy, she experienced the first-hand impact of a nurse’s compassion and dedication to the comfort and safety of a patient.
“When I became a patient myself, I realized that nurses are everything to their patients — their voices, their advocates, their support, their healing hands,” Rynders told Good Good Good.
“I also realized how many opportunities I was missing as a nurse to authentically connect and see my patients. After my ectopic, I became passionate about offering authentic connection in my practice as a nurse, and everything pointed to one thing: Our nurses are tired, overworked, and our healthcare systems are not set up for them to thrive and successfully care for patients.”
Rynders was on to something. And this was in 2017 — before COVID-19.
A survey by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing, published in April 2023, found that about 100,000 nurses left the profession due to pandemic-related burnout and stress.
But Rynders knew nurse mental health was in crisis before a global pandemic took shape.
“When I tried to talk about this with nursing leadership, most downplayed our burnout,” she said. “It was at a time when we were not quite ready to talk about or admit we needed help.”
Rynders, who is also a dancer and choreographer, created an immersive theater performance at her hospital to raise awareness of compassion fatigue and nursing burnout.
The response was overwhelming, and it led her to co-create a six-week grief and trauma workshop series — which also led to a standing monthly meeting to process grief and trauma, conducted regularly throughout COVID-19.
“We used our monthly meetings as a place to debrief and share what was happening in our hearts, our homes, and our floors,” she said.
At the height of the pandemic, she and her team created a video: “COVID Stories,” which narrates stories of grief and trauma over footage of nurses expressing themselves through dance and movement.
And the workshops have continued.
The Clinic: (Re)Brilliancy workshops (a play on the word ‘resiliency’) are Rynders’s most impactful work. In fact, she has been commissioned by Kaiser Permanente to bring them to nurses across California.
“I was so tired of hearing everyone tell us to be more resilient during the pandemic. Nurses are some of the most resilient humans I know,” Rynders said, referencing the name of the workshop series. “What we need are resilient systems that reflect back the brilliant and resilient humans we already are.”
The workshops tap into Rynder’s dance background, integrating movement as a tool for healing and processing the unfathomable stress and trauma nurses carry every day.
“The arts, movement, and play are simply the container for us to soften into our humanity together — to tap into our healing powers as nurses, as humans, and share this healing with ourselves and others,” Rynders said.
And they really do make a difference. One attendee, Charlene Johnson, a nurse in Sacramento, said The Clinic provided her with a day of vulnerability and joy she could have never expected — especially as a Black leader in a field where she often feels invisible.
“The whole eight hours was full of wonder, play, and fun. No agendas, no metrics, no expectations — except to experience joy and be present,” she told Good Good Good. “For an organization to care enough to provide this type of workshop shows the type of care that we need to win our nurses and healthcare workers back to wholeness.”
And now, the work comes back to implementing these healing tools on a scalable, systemic level.
Rynders said the Denver Health system has implemented well-being initiatives through its RESTORE program (Resiliency and Equity Support for Organizational Renewal). This includes 24/7 peer support, in addition to The Clinic’s workshops.
The Clinic also offers licensing to other hospitals and healthcare leaders to provide workshops for their own teams, with the expectation of the program becoming more of a group exercise; not just another responsibility for healthcare workers to take on.
“This is a collective experience: It is not about self-care or asking our nurses to do more,” Rynders said. “It’s time we think innovatively about the support we provide our healthcare workers. What may have served us in the past is no longer working. We need spaces to feel joy and be celebrated.”
And three years into the collective trauma of a global health event, these spaces are needed more than ever.
“We must debrief, we must dance, we must play, we must have courageous spaces to tell the truth about how we are feeling. We must find people to do this work with,” Rynders said. “I think this is the key to processing this [COVID-19]. We must do it together. We heal together.”