Bay Area nurses seek healing through dance and storytelling

While nurses are often cast as heroes in movies and television shows, the tragedies they endure on the job are rarely resolved with precision when their shifts end. And unlike the protagonists found in popular dramas, it can be difficult for these frontline workers to find emotional release after a devastating day in the hospital.

Nurses reported that the challenges facing the sector are feeling even more pronounced in the wake of Covid. A 2023 study by the National Council of State Boards of Nursing revealed that an estimated 100,000 nurses have left the field during the pandemic. By 2027, the council expects 900,000 more nurses, one-fifth of the workforce, to defect.

While there’s no apparent cure-all for the industry, Denver nurse Tara Rynders has an unconventional idea for moving nurses in the right direction, so to speak.

This week, Rynders will lead hundreds of nurses through two days of dancing, crying and laughing at the California Endowments Center for Healthy Communities in downtown Oakland.

A registered nurse for the past 20 years, Rynders calls her brainchild the Clinic, and simply put, it’s a workshop designed for nurses to heal together from secondary trauma stress, compassion fatigue, and chronic burnout.

We herald healthcare workers as superheroes, he said. They are expected to leap from buildings without cloaks.

These jaw-dropping expectations are often expressed in terms such as resilience, a euphemism Rynders has said she has come to hate. She argues that a hospital is not an example of resilience and that asking nurses to remain resilient places an unfair burden on them.

It’s like asking someone to stay in a bad relationship and go for a walk or take a bubble bath, she said.

As Rynders told The Standard, her professional issues became personal when she was 26 and her mother died, an event that left her emotionally disoriented.

And my definition of resilience always bounced back stronger and faster, she said. But at that moment, I could not recover.

Tara Rynders | Courtesy of Adamo Bove

Making the decision to cut back on nursing, Rynders returned to school to pursue a dance degree, an experience she said gave her the language to express her grief.

It has been a process of softening and finding safe spaces and community with others, she said.

After her studies, Rynders gave birth to twins and nearly died of an ectopic pregnancy. She told The Standard that she vaguely remembers when she lay in a hospital bed in critical condition, a nurse whispering in her ear that she would be fine.

After that, I realized how exhausted I was as a nurse and wanted to change the way we operate as health care providers, she said.

Leveraging her dance training, Rynders created the Clinic in 2017, as well as an immersive dance piece that drew on the experiences of her nursing community.

A Snapshot from Rynders’ Engaging Dance Piece ‘First Do No Harm’, Staged Inside a Working Hospital | Courtesy of Drummond West

When he launched the seminar, he said nurses, as a whole, weren’t quite ready to admit they had a burnout problem. But as she discovered, Covid changed everything. During a recent discussion with 600 nurses, Rynders said she was struck by something one of the attendees said.

She said, I can go home and talk to my partner and therapist, but when I talk to other nurses, that’s when I feel healing, Rynders recalled.

How did this feeling become the norm? Rynders likened the experience of being a nurse to the #MeToo movement, when the combined emotional impact of the job creates a traumatic response that elicits feelings of guilt and shame.

We just feel like we’re alone, she said. Much of this workshop is about realizing that you are not alone.

Over the past six years, Rynders has taken the clinic to nine hospitals across the country. It opens with a series of playful exercises to carve out a comfort zone in the room. Rynders facilitates storytelling sessions so participants can process their trauma and grief. The day culminates with a circle dance, an emotional release that according to Rynders usually elicits a combination of tears and laughter.

Nurses dance and play during a recent workshop. | Courtesy of Drummond West

In a press release, an attendee named Charlene Johnson said the workshop gave them the space to truly unwind.

If you come in empty, you’ll leave satisfied and ready to spread the light as you once did, they said.

Rynders said he also sees the seminar as an opportunity for hospitals to have a real moment of reckoning.

Hospitals are failing on every corner right now, he said. Nurses are leaving the field very quickly and this is a really innovative way for hospitals to care for their teams.

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