Helping Yourself So You Can Help Others

If you ask nurses why they chose their profession, the majority usually mention they want to help or take care of people, particularly during difficult times. Helping patients improve their health and recover from injury or surgery can be extremely fulfilling. Unfortunately, not all patients recover completely or at all.

Taking care of seriously ill patients for long periods of time can take its toll on caregivers, most often nurses. Nurses have been feeling the effects of what is now identified as compassion fatigue for decades. Stress, depression and feelings of inadequacy are some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue.

Geary Gardner, BSN, RN, CCRN, lead charge nurse and clinical educator on unit 5900, the bone marrow and stem-cell transplantation unit, has experienced firsthand the impact of compassion fatigue. In the fall of 2011, Gardner was ready to quit nursing so he took some time off from work. “I was exhausted mentally, physically and emotionally and, although I had a chance to reboot, it wasn’t enough,” says Gardner.

At the same time, Barnes-Jewish Hospital was launching compassion fatigue training, specifically designed for nurses like Gardner who are feeling burned out. Although skeptical, Gardner attended the training. Afterward, he felt a sense of accomplishment.

“The compassion fatigue training helps nurses who may be experiencing symptoms but we don’t pay attention because we’re so focused on taking care of others. We don’t realize what’s going on and when we do, we think it’s something else,” says Gardner.

Gardner was so receptive to the training, he decided to become one of the hospitals’ 25 facilitators. Since then, he has trained many nurses, several on his unit. The full-day training requires three facilitators who take turns presenting the different components of the course, which include:

  • “intentionality"—the caring intention that brought them to the health care field in the first place—while accepting their own limits in doing only the best they can on any given day
  • creating a support network
  • understanding the effects of stress on the body

Gardner prefers the section on physiology since, as a nurse, that’s his area of expertise. “The training teaches practical applications that help nurses realize what’s going on and helps them relax the nerves that are stressed. It’s a form of self-regulation,” he says.

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