Compassion Fatigue - The Emotional Toll of Caring for Severely Ill Animals
Compassion fatigue is known by many alternative terms: vicarious traumatization, secondary traumatic stress, secondary stress, and even second-hand shock. Most often, we associate compassion fatigue with the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.
Every person working in a “helping profession” is at risk for developing compassion fatigue. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms, including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude.
Compassion fatigue is prevalent in veterinary medicine. Veterinarians verbally promise to dedicate their professional lives to diagnosing and treating disease in animals and relieving pain and suffering when necessary upon reciting their oath during graduation. But far too often, this responsibility drains our emotional resources, leaving us with little reserve to combat our own struggles.
Much attention is (appropriately) devoted to the negative impact compassion fatigue has for veterinarians. However, relatively little focus is given to the role this condition has on veterinary technicians, an overlooked population of caretakers that is equally susceptible to its damaging effects.
Veterinary technicians aren’t precisely veterinarians, but we consider them the “next best thing.” Veterinary technicians administer medical care, assist veterinarians with all aspects of their daily responsibilities, and communicate with and instruct pet owners on all aspects of both preventative and therapeutic care.
Veterinary technicians help with with routine examinations, administer medications, and conduct laboratory tests and understand how to interpret the results. Technicians also assist with surgeries, perform radiographs (x-rays), and assist in restraint for various procedures.
One of the primary roles veterinary technicians play is in the care of sick, hospitalized patients. The technicians spend countless hours administering treatments or performing diagnostic tests on those pets. They collect and run the laboratory samples. They clean up after, bathe, and hand feed the animals.
Technicians caring for hospitalized pets are the primary advocates for that animal’s care. When a technician alerts me to a patient they think is in pain, I trust their assessment. When they discuss a particular pet’s poor appetite or breathing rate, I heed their words entirely. While I am ultimately responsible for decisions regarding my patient’s care, I trust the technician’s opinions and use them in shaping my choices.
Working at a 24-hour emergency and critical care facility, I’m accustomed to seeing extremely ill or injured patients. We routinely admit the sickest of animals and use all of our expertise and talents to try to help restore their health. Despite (or perhaps because of) the regularity that we encounter such severely ill pets, it’s not unheard of for someone working the clinic to pass by the cage of such a patient, and comment that “He looks really bad,” or “That poor animal,” or “She needs to be euthanized.”
The phrases slide out of our mouths without much thought for consequence related to their impact. They are not meant to carry the weight of the negativity they imply. Yes, they are exceptionally abrasive and lack any element of constructive criticism or help, but are stated in a fleetingly passive sense. One designed to elicit camaraderie rather than disconnect.
However, the impact those words have on the technicians taking care of such patients can be condescending at best, and at worst push someone towards the emotional depths of compassion fatigue. Imagine being tasked with such an uphill battle.
The technicians assigned to caring for those particular animals are hyperaware of the degree of severity of illness or injury of their patients. They understand the gravity of the prognosis. They understand that the outcome will likely be poor. But they still pour every ounce of their dedication, energy, compassion, and effort into ensuring that pet is cared for to the best of their ability.
Negative comments can chip away at a technician’s capability for caring and contribute significantly to developing compassion fatigue. They can incite feelings of insecurity and depression. They could even cause a questioning of integrity or morals.
We focus on the impact of compassion fatigue on veterinarians, but we cannot dismiss the role it plays on the technicians caring for our patients each day. Even when we’re unable to diminish the impact, we can take steps to avoid worsening an already emotionally fueled situation.
We are all in this together. Regardless of the credentials following our name.