By Kathy Walsh

AURORA, Colo. (CBS4) – Studies have found that up to 28 percent of hospital nurses who work in the intensive care unit suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s more than veterans of the Iraq War. Now, researchers in Colorado are studying what to do about it.

Registered Nurse (RN) Jessica Leiss admits to burnout and some of the symptoms of PTSD. For 12 years, Leiss has worked in the intensive care unit (ICU) at the University of Colorado Hospital. She works three 12-hour shifts a week, caring for the sickest patients.

Registered Nurse (RN) Jessica Leiss with a patient (credit: CBS)

Registered Nurse (RN) Jessica Leiss with a patient (credit: CBS)

Leiss says there is no typical day in the ICU.

“It’s the toughest thing I’ve ever done,” Leiss told CBS4 Health Specialist Kathy Walsh. “We see a lot of pain and suffering and death.”

Studies show 20 to 28 percent of critical care nurses suffer from PTSD.

“Which is in line with what you see when someone returns from the war in Afghanistan or Iraq,” said Meredith Mealer, PhD and Assistant Professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Meredith Mealer, PhD and Assistant Professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (credit: CBS)

Meredith Mealer, PhD and Assistant Professor in the University of Colorado School of Medicine Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (credit: CBS)

Mealer, an RN who worked in critical care, studies the effects of PTSD on nurses.

“It seems like nurses are good until about year six, then they tend to turn to a less stressful position,” Mealer said.

Mealer and Dr. Mark Moss, a pulmonary critical care physician, launched a pilot program in Colorado in 2012 to teach resiliency to nurses with burnout or PTSD to help them manage stress.

Over 12 weeks, 13 ICU nurses at the University of Colorado Hospital exercised, practiced mindfulness, and got counseling for work trauma.

Registered Nurse (RN) Jessica Leiss with a patient (credit: CBS)

Registered Nurse (RN) Jessica Leiss with a patient (credit: CBS)

“If they’re not dealing with distressing thoughts, then obviously the patients are going to be better cared for,” said Mealer.

Now, the hope is to secure a grant to refine the resiliency training program and study a larger group of Denver area nurses.

Kathy Walsh is CBS4’s Weekend Anchor and Health Specialist. She has been with CBS4 for more than 30 years. She is always open to story ideas. Follow Kathy on Twitter @WalshCBS4.

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