Friday, March 30, 2012

Compassion fatigue - and then the remedy.

Earlier this week, I was suffering from a pretty stiff case of compassion fatigue, mostly as a result of mean, downright awful clients, and several cases with sad outcomes.  Compassion fatigue is a known occurrence among medical professionals who experience sadness, high emotional cases and drama on a daily basis. Experiencing these negative feelings over and over again results in a numbness or a lack of compassion for the suffering of others; usually this is temporary. Read more about it here.

After several prior days of bad cases, mean people, and frustrating situations, last night was long-awaited.  All evening, we had friendly, reasonable, logical clients who spoke to us like normal human beings, who asked smart questions, who treated us with the respect that we afford to them, and who all truly cared about their pets.  Not once yesterday was I called a name or screamed at; not once did I have to explain to an angry client that I'm not a millionaire.  This might not seem so shocking to those who are not in the field; unfortunately ER medicine has a propensity for the absurd.  I'm sure those of you who have worked with the general public (retail, customer service, etc.) have seen some idea of the ridiculous actions of people; mix in with that the high drama of an ill or injured pet and the odd hours of the day that we are working, and an explosive mix results.

The pinnacle of the evening was a 13 year old Basset hound, "Eva," who presented for a distended abdomen.  Eva was owned by a lovely older woman.  At first glance, Eva had a rough hair coat and a moderate amount of flea dirt; her client was quiet but kind.  Initial diagnostics confirmed that Eva indeed had a bloat, or gastric dilatation and volvulus (see several previous entries about this condition).  Given her condition, she was relatively stable, thanks to her very observant client noticing symptoms almost immediately and quickly responding by bringing Eva to us.

Immediate surgery was required; unfortunately, I was suspicious that instead of treatment, Eva would be euthanized due to her advanced age and the cost of surgery.  Definitely an understandable decision in this situation - however, after discussing the risks of anesthesia, surgery, as well as an honest discussion about a typical lifespan for a dog of Eva's breed, I was excited and surprised at the client's decision.

"She's my family" the client said. "Do whatever you need to do.  I know she's an old girl, but I want to give her a chance, even if she only has a few more months or years to live. I know we can't pinpoint how long she'll live, but I want to give her a chance."

YES.  This is why I do my job. I hurriedly prepared Eva for the procedure; it would be a challenge to get her safely through anesthesia and surgery.  Amazingly, she performed exceptionally well under anesthesia, and surgery was a success.  She recovered well.

My favorite part of the day was reuniting Eva and her mom.  Truly, a heartwarming moment that for me, melted away the crusty shell of compassion fatigue.


  1. Oh, yay :-)
    I qualified in 2010 and even though I didn't think I would stay bright-eyed and bushy-tailed forever, I am kind of scared of how familiar with the concept of compassion fatigue I am.

    Oh well, luckily there's always cases like Eva :-)