One of the first things they teach you in nursing school is to understand that you are not them – in other words, don’t personalize the disease you treat. If you start to see yourself or your loved ones in the faces of your patients and their families you are fucked – all you will see is sadness and loss. The barriers that allow you to administer compassionate and professional care will have fallen, both preventing you from doing so and opening yourself up to more tragedy than anyone can be expected to bear.
And yet, if you are naturally empathetic, it doesn’t take much for this to happen. The death of a loved one, finding yourself unexpectedly diagnosed with a life altering/ending disease, or the terminal illness of a friend can bring these barriers crashing down, leaving your psyche open like a festering wound. You begin to see yourself or your loved ones in your patients faces, and it is devastating.
Meditation is my drug of choice to restore perspective, but it isn’t a panacea. The ER is a place where bad things happen to good people – strokes, cardiac arrests, heart attacks, cancer diagnosis, the death of children, physical trauma that will leave the afflicted permanently disabled, suicides, rape, untreated mental illness, end-stage addiction, physical abuse – it’s a long list that could go on and on…
Make no mistake – I love my job and 98% of the time I’m impervious to this kind of thinking. But boy, the other 2% can be rough – really, really rough.