On any given shift, nurses witness the drama of life and death. This aspect of our work is unlikely to change. We witness patients taking in the bad news of their diagnosis, holding basins up to their faces while they vomit, and transfusing blood products before they exsanguinate. Although oncology is not an actual war, nurses and patients alike use military terms to describe it, such as battling cancer, or attacking tumor cells. We see ourselves as comrades in the fight against this devastating enemy.
Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was a nurse during the Civil War. In her memoir, Hospital Sketches, she describes witnessing the death of a young soldier in detail so vividly the scene rings true for any nurse who has attended the bedside of the dying.
Whether we record our experiences in words to share with others, or keep them to ourselves, as nurses we bear witness to the suffering of our patients. Sometimes this secondary trauma leads to compassion fatigue, if not real disease or injury.
Watching people suffer is difficult, but at least I am not watching helplessly. I am grateful to be an oncology nurse now, when advancements in cancer treatment and its side effects occur regularly. Armed with these tools, oncology nurses bring knowledge and skill to the care and comfort of their patients. For me the ability to give aid makes witnessing the suffering bearable. I think being a news journalist or photographer sent to bear witness of the stories of conflicts in the world would be more difficult. Or filming a devastating natural disaster while people perish. Journalism requires a story, and pictures. Granted, at their best, these stories and pictures alert the world to action, serving a valuable purpose. Still, emotional trauma occurs among journalists, as in nurses.
Even Alcott experienced trauma from her military service when she contracted typhoid fever. She suffered lifelong chronic pain, a side effect of the mercury-based medication used to treat her. This is not unlike secondary cancers suffered by oncology patients from the chemotherapy administered to save them from their primary cancer.
Have you ever felt helpless in a patient care setting? Do your nursing skills offset the emotional trauma you experience or have little impact? What tools do you use to prevent compassion fatigue for yourself?