I had an insanely busy week awhile back. All the normal (and a little extra) stuff, plus a business trip took me away from the practice I work for, so I had to make up some hours on a Saturday I’d normally be spending with my family. My energy was already on low ebb, and then I saw the full appointment schedule — sigh. To top it off, I was returning client calls like a madwoman in between cases. After one appointment my phone showed that I had missed seven calls. I felt like I was drowning.

And there was that one particularly odd message that I had to deal with. The clinic’s receptionist called me on Friday to let me know that a client I had worked with a year ago wanted to meet up with me at some point over the weekend; Jeff, I’ll call him. Jeff and I played phone tag throughout the day, and to be honest, when I finally got home from work the last thing I wanted to do was head out again to meet him. Ingracious, I know, but frankly I was burnt out.

A specific type of burn-out called compassion fatigue is a real problem for veterinarians and other caregivers. According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project:

Caring too much can hurt. When caregivers focus on others without practicing self-care, destructive behaviors can surface. Apathy, isolation, bottled up emotions and substance abuse head a long list of symptoms associated with the secondary traumatic stress disorder now labeled: Compassion Fatigue

Studies confirm that caregivers play host to a high level of compassion fatigue. Day in, day out, workers struggle to function in care giving environments that constantly present heart wrenching, emotional challenges. Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society's flagrant disregard for the safety and well being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full time employees to part time volunteers. Eventually, negative attitudes prevail.

Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of chronic stress resulting from the care giving work we choose to do. Leading traumatologist Eric Gentry suggests that people who are attracted to care giving often enter the field already compassion fatigued. A strong identification with helpless, suffering, or traumatized people or animals is possibly the motive. It is common for such people to hail from a tradition of what Gentry labels: other-directed care giving. Simply put, these are people who were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. Authentic, ongoing self-care practices are absent from their lives.

Now on the Saturday that I’m talking about, I was simply tired, stressed and grumpy, not suffering from compassion fatigue. I’ve dealt with short bouts of this debilitating condition, however, which is one of the reasons I only work part-time in end-of-life care.

Turns out that meeting up with Jeff was exactly the medicine I needed to banish my feelings of overwork and underappreciation. He and his family simply wanted to say "thank you" in the form of a bouquet of flowers, a note, and a beautiful picture, in gratitude for my help in taking care of their beloved dog at the end of its life.

I tell this story so you don’t underestimate the power that showing gratitude for a caregiver’s work can have. I left this brief get-together feeling reenergized and ready to take on whatever was headed my way … after a Sunday off, that is.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Nomad_Soul / via Shutterstock