Is it Possible to Avoid Compassion Fatigue?

When it comes to compassion fatigue, there may be nowhere to hide, even in the “safe” careers.


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Once again, I have been given the opportunity to teach my compassion fatigue classes on the Veterinary Support Personnel Network, which began two weeks ago. While I certainly hope the VSPN students walk away with something of value, it never fails that I also walk away with something of value too! This time around, it has been illustrated to me how, even if you think you are on a career path where you are “safe” from the emotional repercussions of compassion fatigue, really, there is nowhere to hide. 

Just as a refresher, in human medicine, compassion fatigue is defined as the stress that arises from the clinician’s relationship with the patient. For us, this is the relationship we all have with our families, both the human and the animal members of our family.

Based on this definition, you expect compassion fatigue in general practice, where you form lengthy relationships with families and their pets. You also expect compassion fatigue in emergency practice, where the family is dealing with an incredibly emotional, unexpected situation. Even if the family is a complete stranger to you, the sudden and even short relationship is still going to affect the team. In specialty medicine, you would expect compassion fatigue in areas such as critical care, internal medicine and even surgery. But what about the other non-life-threatening type of specialties?

Take, for example, the technician working in ophthalmology. I know first-hand how it feels to make the decision to surgically remove both your pet’s eyes, having gone through it myself a little over a year ago with my own dog, Georgia. Sure enough, when I mentioned that difficult time to the student from ophthalmology, she confirmed that these are probably the most difficult cases for the team emotionally, as well. I imagine that any type of issue with the eyes and vision is difficult for a family, and the veterinary team must support them through it. We humans put so much meaning on sight, and we grieve for the loss of it.  It would be easy to see that these relationships between the affected family and the veterinary team must be pretty tight. Before, perhaps, I did not have as much of an understanding in how compassion fatigue would affect this specialty.

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Even more surprising was hearing from the student who works in histology. I’ve known people who, not adapting well to or enjoying all the client contact in practice, moved into what we call the “lab-rat” career. But is it safe? Not according to this particular technician, who explained how it feels to read the history of the sample they are preparing and the summary of how the owner says the growth happened “within the last few days,” when clearly, its advanced necrosis tells a different story. Although the patients may remain faceless, each time cancer or terminal disease is confirmed, it is hard not to think about the pet, and the family, behind this diagnosis.

Even after these years working within compassion fatigue, I still have lessons to learn.

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