Compassion Fatigue

by carlocmd

An old man sat hunched down in the wheelchair. He was in the middle of the hospital corridor, probably waiting for the doctor’s secretary to arrive and open the clinic. It was early morning. The clinics were still closed. I was passing by this corridor, heading for the procedure unit where I start my work every morning.

I saw him there and a spring of pity rose up from my being. I saw his frailty. I saw that he was alone. I saw his need.

I had no reason to pity him. He was not my patient. I did not even know him. It was an irrational reaction to an image. But I find myself always reacting the same way towards each patient. It was as if I was sympathizing or empathizing too much.

This spring of pity absolutely drained me. This was just at the beginning of my day.

Compassion fatigue has been my problem these past few weeks. It’s a terrible thing to be in the service of others, then experience a series of events that drain you, causing you feelings of depression, sadness, and an overall tiredness. You would think that helping others would bring its own rewards – good feelings and purpose. But I know there is such as thing as helping too much. You end up overextending yourself.

It’s something that brings me to my knees in prayer. I find that talking about it with others does not help much. Especially when they could not understand. I know my wife could understand, being a doctor herself. I know she knows me better than any other. I see her try to talk with me, dialogue, to bring me out of this pit. I see her struggle, and I see her need help. My help. But I have no help left to give.

My knees buckled as I walked the corridor. I placed a hand out to touch the wall, to steady myself. To find some steel that is left inside — some measure of strength and comfort. I cried for help.

The old man noticed me. We were the only two souls there.

He looked up. He smiled. He said, “Good morning, doctor!”

I saw then that his hunch was not the hunch of sickness, but of age. I saw that he was fine.

“Good morning, sir,” I replied. And we passed each other. Him to wait, me to my place of work.

I felt healing flow through me, to occupy the empty spaces in my life. It was unreal. It was like finding a magic pill in a video game that gave you instant health. In that moment, I felt loved.

It was enough for me to continue my work today, because I know now that this is not just my work, but His too. That I do not need to look for steel, but just fall in His Grace. That all I need to do is to lift this burden up, and He will carry me through.

I look back and think, how can that man know that I am a doctor, when I had none of the external trappings of my profession? My coat was in the clinic. My ID was inside my pocket. For all external appearances, I might have looked like a patient too.