South Florida Hospital News
Tuesday September 17, 2019
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December 2007 - Volume 4 - Issue 6

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Battling Compassion Fatigue

On a particularly tough weekend in the emergency department that included the death of a toddler, the suicide of a young man and a teen-ager killed in a car accident, Sheila Drohan tried to give comfort not only to the families of those involved but for those providing care as well.

Part of Drohan’s job as director of pastoral care services for Martin Memorial is to help families cope in situations such as those. But she also monitors the hospital staff members, to see how they’re handling such emotional situations.

Dealing with those situations can sometimes lead to a condition known as compassion fatigue, which is a term used to describe caregivers – including physicians, nurses and others who work in the healthcare setting – who become worn down after seeing pain and suffering day after day. That can include everyone from an emergency department physician to a nurse on the cancer floor to a social worker in the ICU.

"We’re affected by what we hear and see," Drohan said. "We hear how patients get sick, see how it affects them, their families. Everyone involved in a patient’s care absorbs all of that."

Drohan has become well-versed in identifying compassion fatigue and helping people find ways to get past it. Some of the signs and symptoms include: dread, anxiety, detachment, grief, disturbed sleep, a quick temper or unexplained crying.

Because the kinds of patients each unit sees is generally distinct, the kinds of compassion fatigue are usually different as well. While events in the emergency department may be traumatic, helping a long-suffering ICU patient and his family brings a different emotional element that may build up over time.

Drohan has spoken with some caregivers in groups, including the staff on the cancer floor. Other times she sees people individually who are seeking someone to talk to about what they’ve experienced.

Drohan said there are ways to work through compassion fatigue, including: establishing or joining support systems; rotating assignments; get enough sleep, eat well and exercise; cut back or do less if necessary.

"It’s important to take care of ourselves as well as we take care of others," she said. "We’re usually too busy to do that because we’re taking care of others."

That includes Drohan, who has a master’s degree in religious education and has been at Martin Memorial for 15 years. She answers late-night calls and rushes to the hospital to provide comfort for grieving families. She counsels staff who’ve seen an excess of suffering.

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