EMS Behind the Scenes:  Compassion fatigue impacts us all

17 Jun EMS Behind the Scenes:  Compassion fatigue impacts us all

By Stuart McKinnon, Deputy Chief, Muskoka Paramedic Services.

I am writing this while looking outside at one of our first sunny days of spring.  It’s funny how just a little sunshine and a break in the spring rain showers can heighted the mood of everyone around us.  Stay tuned….we will be complaining about the unrelenting heat in no time.

It’s been a tough winter for first responders, dispatchers, and our friends at our nearby hospitals.  Emergency types haven’t changed though, as we’ve seen the usual medical conditions such as heart attacks, breathing difficulty, strokes, diabetic emergencies, traumatic injuries, and so on.  While the emergency types don’t change, the frequency of each type can fluctuate, impacting those who respond to them greatly.  Our thoughts are always with those impacted by sadness and tragedy, locally and abroad, but when I say it’s been a tough winter we have to take a minute to consider what made it seem that way.  Many of us were woken late at night in February to an Amber Alert, a measure put in place to help find missing or abducted children.  The hope of any agency sending one of these alerts is that the community will share the message and remain extra vigilant until the child is found.  Sadly, the child in this case was not able to be saved, but almost as saddening was the reaction of so many who felt that this alert was an unnecessary nuisance.  Have we truly become so disconnected from our fellow humans to feel like this short alert was uncalled for?

The tragic shooting in New Zealand came roughly a month later.  The reaction from around the world was of sadness and support for the victims, families, and responders involved, but most of us felt a moment of sorrow and then simply went about our lives.  We are not lesser human beings for acting this way, but the sheer number of tragic events that we are privy to each day eventually erodes our ability to feel compassion.  This is called compassion fatigue, something emergency workers know all too well.  When someone responds to illness and injury, hundreds of times per year for an entire career it is not uncommon for them to start to show the signs of compassion fatigue.  There are times when a Paramedic or other responder needs to remind themselves that they are the ones people call in their worst hour, not because they want to burden someone else with their pain, but because there is no one else to call.  Paramedics pride themselves on being the ones people call when they are in their time of need, but it takes consistent effort to ensure they don’t fall victim to compassion fatigue.

I don’t share this to make anyone feel bad for first responders.  They all deserve our utmost respect and gratitude, but we don’t need to pity them.  They eagerly do what they do, and know that through all the tough times, there will be times when they can proudly say they have saved lives…an indescribable feeling.

I share this so that all of us, regardless of our age, background, education, career, or beliefs, can take stake in our own ability to feel compassion.  Take a moment to consider how you felt the last time you heard of a tragic event.  Did you start to think of what the person did wrong to end up in the situation?  Did we place blame without knowing the situation or facts?  Have you ever found yourself blaring your car horn and yelling at a complete stranger who cut you off while driving?  This is not an excuse for poor/aggressive driving, but have we considered that that person may be having the worst day of their life and are simply trying to get to family or friends?

We will all experience compassion fatigue, some more than others, as with emergency workers.  Turn on the news and we are frequently presented with only the worst in the world.  This takes its toll.  I still feel however, that the world is an amazing place, even if our ability to remain compassionate is tested more regularly in the age of instant information.  Bad days will happen, but so will good ones.  Be there for your fellow humans, and allow yourself to feel sorrow and pain.  Search for the good in others when you start to feel adverse about life’s events.  Our compassion is in there, even if it is a little fatigued at times.