There are many opportunities for a nurse to use her story to inform her daily actions, to bring meaning to her work, and to be a well to draw motivation from.
In the medical field, you are taught (and encouraged, in fact) to distance yourself from patients. Constantly providing physical care for people is draining, and emotional care adds just another factor that expedites burnout and compassion fatigue. My nursing school emphasized the importance of having a professional boundary between patients and self, because ultimately nursing is a profession that you have to return to day after day, and you must keep it sustainable if you want to continue for the long term.
How do we – how do I – walk that boundary?
It’s incredibly hard. I want to show my patients good care and treat them as a person with multi-faceted needs. But it is virtually impossible to give, give, give to patients day after day.
Where Do I Find the Motivation to Provide Quality Care and Not Burn Out?
Most people give the answer that “self-care” is the key to being able to give others good care. Take care of yourself, and you will be able to take care of others. I agree with that, to a certain extent. However, I think there’s an alternative source of motivation that nurses can pull from to bolster emotional connection with patients without burning out. I believe our own personal health struggles and our loved ones’ health struggles can bring connection and meaning to the patients we serve. By drawing on our memories or current experiences, we recognize that the patient in front of us is in need of care just like we were or are or will be again. Our personal experiences can translate into the care we give and enhance it.
Here are a few examples from my own life.
Several months ago I suffered an overuse running injury: a grade 3 stress fracture in my sacrum.
After spending months of my life going to doctor’s appointments, getting MRIs and X-rays, using crutches, and learning to swim, I now have a special place in my heart for those who are working through orthopedic injuries. I believe my personal experience has increased my compassion for patients who are experiencing orthopedic trauma. My perspective has shifted, and I believe my heart has grown to be able to care for and serve those with crutches, casts, braces or slings.
Cancer had always been a condition that I heard about in college.
But it didn’t take on great meaning until I got a phone call that my grandpa had lymphoma and needed chemotherapy treatments. He underwent six rounds of treatment, and there was a dramatic shift in his ability to function normally. His fatigue, aversion to food, and inability to move well was hard to watch. The man who was always up for exploring a national park or going on a long road trip was now frighteningly fragile. As a nurse, I can relate to patients on a deeper level because of my personal connection. I do not attempt to take on the full suffering that each patient faces individually nor the weight of a caretaker’s grief, but I am motivated to provide good care, regularly, day after day, because I have a small idea of how devastating cancer can be to every person it touches.
What about obstetrics and pediatrics?
I haven’t had the honor of having a child yet, but my older sister recently gave birth to a beautiful young boy. During her pregnancy, the baby was only an ambiguous being to all of us, and all we could do was wait with anticipation to meet him. When we received the news that the baby was born and we got our first look at him, I was hit by how miraculous the birthing process is, how precious this new life is. As a nurse working in pediatrics or obstetrics, there is so much meaning to every action: to preserve the best quality of life for mom and baby. What an honor to be a part of that. What an incredible reason to come to work each shift ready to serve the mothers and children who are in need of nursing care.
In nursing school, the first rotation I had was mental health. I was faced with severe cases of schizophrenia, bipolar, and suicidal ideation, and it scared me.
I wanted to distance myself from the patients. However, it was also around this time that I began to learn of the mental health issues within my own family. I began to realize how many family members that I love so dearly live with anxiety and depression and bipolar every day, and the seasons of difficulty ebb and flow for them. When I faced this reality, I saw the patients I cared for with new eyes. It was a shift from seeing patients as more than their condition, and seeing them as persons with family and stories beyond their current inpatient status.
As in all things, I can understand there would be instances where a personal health struggle might hit too close to home for a nurse to care for patients experiencing a similar situation. However, I think that there are many opportunities for a nurse to use her story to inform her daily actions, to bring meaning to her work, and to be a well to draw motivation from.