Drowning but can’t reach for a life vest: families, caregivers, doctors, nurses and many others helping professionals

January 4, 2011 by  
Filed under Featured, For Healthcare Professionals


I had such a sad experience recently. I was speaking to a group of doctors and presenting them some techniques to make their lives easier. (This was at a county hospital which deals with the most underprivileged of our community.) I was surprised by how many of the doctors in the room were so resistant to accepting help. I sensed from their comments how burnt out they were and how hopeless they had become. The system they are working under is so broken that they couldn’t imagine that anything could change or be made better. It was painful to witness their suffering.

I realized that what I was seeing was classic caregiver burnout aka compassion fatigue. Caregivers, both family and professional, get so overwhelmed, they can’t ask for help. Lifeguards see this all the time when the person becomes so fatigued that the person can’t grab hold of the life vest right in front of them. The lifeguard has to swim out to the person and literally carry them to shore.

It is so easy for those of those of those who help caregivers to just say, “Grab on and I will help you,” but it may be too late. Ideally, we should reach the person before they are that far gone, but often times, the burnout doesn’t reveal itself until it has become extreme.

I understand this. When I was caregiving for my fourth and final relative, I became so overwhelmed that I laid down on the sidewalk in front of my house, and couldn’t get up. The only reason I finally did get up was because I didn’t want someone driving by to panic and call an ambulance. (Typical caregiver behavior, I was more worried about everyone else, before myself.) I went in the house and cried for days. I was lucky because my husband was my life saver and helped me reach out for support. For so many caregivers, they are drowning and don’t know help is available or where to turn.

For healthcare professionals, there is pride in being strong and capable, and to be weak is professionally unacceptable. And because their colleagues rarely express their own suffering, these professional caregivers think they are all alone. This leads to even more isolation and inability to ask for help.

I would encourage those of you who work as a professional healer to make sure your organization develops programs and support groups for you. You deserve the same care that family caregivers are receiving in the community. I need all of you to be okay because a lot of people are depending on you. But I don’t expect you to be super-human, I understand you are very human and have the same needs as all the rest of us. Please realize you are not alone and there are people ready to help. A great organization that can help is http://www.compassionfatigue.org/.

Have a kind and respectful day.