Regional Cancer Center ~ Erie, PA

Caring for Caregivers

Nov 18, 2015 | Posted in News


Every workday around lunchtime, Sherri Siegel, R.N., heads outside and walks around the grounds of the Regional Cancer Center.

It doesn't matter if it's sunny, snowing or pouring down rain; Siegel goes on her walk.

"I need to do that, get that little bit of reprieve or decompression," said Siegel, the center's palliative care coordinator. "The days I don't do it, I'm more fatigued, more irritable."

Siegel has been a nurse for 25 years and loves her job managing the symptoms of cancer patients as they undergo chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Sometimes, though, the job can be overwhelming.

Siegel sometimes struggles with what care professionals know as compassion fatigue, a term for the "emotional fallout, the emotional sludge of constantly putting others first and giving until your basket is empty," said Kim Richards, R.N.

Richards, a former ER and ICU nurse and a nurse recruiter from Colorado, will discuss compassion fatigue, which can affect nurses, physicians, paramedics or anyone else who regularly treats ill people, when she speaks Friday at the Regional Cancer Center.

Richards said compassion fatigue is a serious issue, which can force some health-care professionals to leave their jobs or seek counseling. Compassion fatigue was first identified by name in 1992 in reference to the experiences of nurses with burnout, according to a report by the American Psychological Association.

Some are at greater risk than others.

Those most likely to struggle with compassion fatigue include people with anxiety or depression, those working many long shifts without a break, people who work primarily with terminally ill or seriously ill patients, and those who are the primary caregivers for a spouse or parent.

The early stages of compassion fatigue can include feelings of irritability or difficulty getting along with others, Richards said.

"They might suffer more colds, more sickness, exhaustion and headaches," Richards said. "They also tend to self medicate, with alcohol, drugs, food or sex. They are looking for short-term solutions."

Later signs can include insomnia, deep fatigue, more self medication, and more callous behavior at work.

Regional Cancer Center officials realized they might have an issue with compassion fatigue this spring when their nurses working in the infusion center were surveyed about it as part of a co-worker's master's degree project.

About 75 percent of those surveyed were experiencing compassion fatigue, Siegel said.

"And it's not just nurses," said Julie Cole, R.N., a palliative care nurse at the center. "One of the (patient) schedulers came to me in tears when one of the patients had passed. This can affect anyone who sees patients on a regular basis."

Richards' goal is to help center employees reduce or prevent compassion fatigue by teaching them ways to "refill their baskets."

The center already does several things to help employees, such as offering yoga classes and massages, Siegel said.

"One technique I will share is the power of positive self talk," Richards said. "I'll give them simple techniques they can use every single day, even when they are getting ready to walk into a patient's room."

One example is to have the person look in a mirror and say, "I care about you. You make a difference. People appreciate what you are doing."

Different tips will work for different people, Richards said.

For instance, Cole decompresses by listening to audiobooks in her car while driving to and from work each day.

"I usually listen to mysteries or gothic love stories," Cole said. "It helps."

Richards said her primary goal is to deliver a message of hope to the center's employees.

"Prevention is the best antidote for compassion fatigue," Richards said.

Source: David Bruce, Erie Times-News
Photo Source: Christopher Millette, Erie Times-News

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