Julianna Paradisi, RN, OCN, writes a monthly post for this blog and works as an infusion nurse in outpatient oncology.
Compassion fatigue is a syndrome commonly known to nurses and other professionals involved in patient care. It is the result of constant exposure to traumatic events occurring to others. Its effects on the psyche of nurses are widely studied, recognized as a factor in burnout and self-medication, and sometimes result in nurses leaving the profession.
My clinical practicum as a nursing student, nearly 30 years ago, was in oncology. There I saw patients succumb to cancer. Many were young adults. One left behind a grieving husband, and an infant. It was heartbreaking. I asked my preceptor, a skilled, compassionate, and uncannily jolly nurse, how did she avoid burnout? I did not know about compassion fatigue yet.
She wisely replied, “You need to develop a happy, fulfilling personal life outside of nursing. You have to shut it off when you leave the hospital.” It was good advice.
I took it to heart, and over the years developed a happy, fulfilling personal life. However, turning it off when leaving the hospital is more of a challenge lately. In a similar way that an opportunistic, secondary infection makes the flu lethal, the rapid influx of news by way of our digital culture is a secondary infiltration into our lives, making it difficult for sensitive souls to “shut it off” after leaving the hospital. For lack of a better term, I’ve dubbed this digital age barrage “NPR Syndrome.”
Before going further, I want to state that NPR (National Public Radio) is a respected source of news. As more and more broadcast news reports are indistinguishable from infomercials, NPR plays an important role in bringing serious news from around the world to our attention. I coined the term “NPR Syndrome” simply because I was listening to NPR when it occurred to me how challenging it is to escape compassion fatigue outside of the hospital.
The amount of suffering in the world is overwhelming to nurses.
There is not enough time to volunteer for all of the projects close to our hearts. There is not enough cash in our wallets to hand out to every homeless person we meet, or fill the shelves of food banks. There are not enough blankets to donate to shelters for the cold and displaced. Resources for brave souls traveling to developing countries to provide vaccinations and drinking water are too few. And then there are the refugees of war we see in flight every night on the evening news. It feels like we are using a Band-Aid to stop the flow of a bleeding artery.
The result is that many nurses feel guilty over having happy, fulfilled personal lives, lives that sustain us to go back to our jobs providing skilled and compassionate nursing care to our patients, where we again encounter compassion fatigue.
A lot of nurses have stopped reading, listening to, or watching the news altogether, and at over three million strong in the United States, this is a lot of political power gone to waste through being uninformed.
We are only human.
As a nursing student finishing her practicum, I had no desire to become an oncology nurse. It was too depressing. Nearly 30 years later, I am an oncology nurse, and find the work rich and fulfilling. I am uncannily hopeful, if not jolly.
I hope that, in the same manner, I will adjust to the rapid influx of information of our digital age, and find ways to help others without succumbing either to compassion fatigue in the hospital or NPR Syndrome at home. I’m starting out with baby steps, focusing primarily on local organizations that feel less overwhelming, places where the results are tangible. It’s not a perfect approach, by any means, but it’s better than shutting down from overload.
Because compassionate nurses are a tragic resource to waste.