My first job as a Registered Nurse was in a terribly busy ER. The hours were long, the paper work was overwhelming, and the patient load was barely manageable. The stress, anxiety and environment began to chip away at my foundational core values of care and compassion. The reality of my eroding foundation didn’t really hit me until, after about a year of employment, an event occurred.
I remember the day quite vividly. It was an extremely stressful day: car accidents, heart attacks, and other serious injuries were streaming in. During the course of my shift, an ambulance delivered a disgruntled patient into one of my rooms. I began to ask routine triage questions. I got the man’s name, age, and then I started asking about his sickness. The man announced that he wasn’t going to tell me anymore until I got him something to drink. I told the guy, “I will get you a drink a little later after I get you checked in and the doctor sees you.” The man kept asking for something to drink, and I kept telling him, “No, we need to get you checked out first.” This volley went back and forth for awhile, and I finally said, “You know what, I will get you your drinks!”
At that point, I went to the hospital fridge and got about thirty little drinks and dropped them all in his bed and said, “Here are your drinks! Now will you tell me what is going on with you?!” At that point the man cussed me out and threatened to kill me. At the time, I felt justified in my reaction; however, my boss didn’t. In retrospect, it wasn’t a good move on my part. It was, however, a telling reaction about the condition of my heart. I realized that my heart had grown bitter, and it was manifesting itself outwardly by infecting me and others. This time it was insulting a patient by dropping drinks on a bed. The next time, maybe I would ignore a patient’s call button, his request for pain medicines, or worse. Unfortunately, my reaction that day wasn’t the last time my “Nurse Ratchedness” manifested itself. I realized that I had to do something in my life to reverse the bitterness, resentment and anger. This disease that infected me is called COMPASSION FATIGUE.
Unfortunately, I have succumbed to this disease more often than I would like to admit. Compassion Fatigue is not just a “fuzzy” word for burnout. This syndrome occurs commonly in those who are long-term caregivers, and it depletes, not just the mind and body, but the very core of a human being. I found my own core values of care and compassion eroding after dealing constantly with sickness, disease and trauma in the emergency room environment.
How do you know if you are succumbing to the effects of compassion fatigue? This malady has many tentacles, and it can infect your physical body, emotions, behaviors and interpersonal relationships. Common signs and symptoms include: anger towards clients, sleep disturbances, mood swings, social withdrawal, enmeshment with clients and an array of other debilitating issues.
The biggest key to fighting off this foe is to take personal inventory and actually realize that you may be suffering from it. There isn’t a pill for compassion fatigue, but there is something called “Take-A-Vacation” therapy. Recognize your own limitations and take proactive steps to remedy the situation. The best thing I did to curb my own case of Compassion Fatigue was to get lost in the jungles of Costa Rica. When I returned to my job after two weeks, I was refreshed, and I began the process of recovery. Ten years later, I am still in the health and human services profession.
However, staying out of the clutches of Compassion Fatigue is not a one-time battle. The fight must be fought day-in and day-out. It is difficult, and you may feel like quitting, but the battle is worth fighting. There is no greater joy than helping others achieve their dreams and contributing to their health and safety.