Healing the healers: Health care workers turn focus on own emotional health

TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) - Caring for people can hurt if caregivers aren't paying attention.

Helping people with serious illness or injuries day in and day out can cause what experts call compassion fatigue. It's traumatic stress that studies find can affect anywhere from 16 percent up to 85 percent of health care workers.

The impact is felt by people in roles across the industry.

Weekly meditation sessions at Stormont Vail, for example, not only draw doctor and nurses, but also social workers and health care information staff.

Patty Morgan, LMSW, is a social worker in the medical ICU. Much of her works centers on patients and families dealing with chronic illness.

"I love the people," she said. "I feel for them. I hurt for them. I work hard not to take it home but I can't say I'm 100 percent great at that."

Jill Straub, who works in medical records, agrees. In her role, she reads about the various ailments and traumas with which families are coping, and she may interact with families, hearing those stories face-to-face.

"It's as if it's happening with one of our family members and we can feel their pain," she said. "It's very emotional, very overwhelming to know what they have gone through."

Stormont recently launched the weekly meditation sessions, to help staffers let go of those difficult situations - because, at the end of the day, it can be tough to leave behind.

"You're trying to figure out what could I have done different? What could I have done to have a better outcome?" says Elaine Chartier, who works in medical records and also volunteers as an EMT.

No matter their role, Tom Baker, Stormont's spiritual care director, says all deal with a harsh reality.

"Health care workers live in the crossroads of life and death - and that can be a really kind of draining experience," he said.

Baker says, as a hospital chaplain, he learned the hard way how vital it is to focus on the mental and emotional well being of health care workers.

"I worked a lot of deaths and traumas and the only thing I was noticing - I even made a joke at home about it - that if a puppy commercial came on TV, I'd start crying," he recalls. "(I) got called into the boss' office and he said something's wrong with you - and it's either the door or get help. I had no idea I had compassion fatigue."

The constant exposure to serious injuries and chronic illness can take a toll that leads to burnout or interfere with professional skills and personal relationships. Recent mass shootings have put the spotlight on trauma teams trying to save the injured, but health care workers say it's an every day reality - whether it's an elderly person in heart failure, or the loved one of a car wreck victim needing records for an insurance claim.

In addition to the meditation sessions, a staff of seven spiritual care providers is available anytime to meet one-on-one with staff to help individuals decompress. They also launched a pilot program to hold regular sessions in certain units.

"What we've learned is that we need to be more proactive with it," Baker said. "Instead of waiting for something to happen, we're actually going to be there on a scheduled day at a scheduled time, on that unit to just be present, and, if someone wants to talk or do a quick debriefing, we can do that."

The end goal, Baker says, is people taking care of themselves so they're better able to take care of others.

Those in the meditation group believes it's working.

"It helps to come here and have a moment to know people are going to be okay, people are going to be taken care of," Chartier said. "You can feel that weight being lifted off your shoulders."

Insomnia, fear, anxiety and lack of focus are all signs of compassion fatigue. It can affect at-home caregivers as well.

Find information about compassion fatigue, along with resources and self-assessment tools, at the web site for the Compassion Fatigue Awareness project, www.compassionfatigue.org.