by Carrie Jurney DVM DACVIM (Neuro)
I think as veterinarians we are a little fatigued about hearing about Compassion Fatigue. But what is compassion to begin with?
So Dictionary.com defines compassion as "a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering."
Huh. Well, that does sound exhausting- noble, but exhausting. Looking at the etymology of the word, it is apparently derived from the Latin "com"- meaning together and "pati" which means suffer. This word literally means co-suffering.
Now my religious upbringing would say that a little suffering is good for the soul. And I do think that compassion is a truly beautiful human trait. How wonderful to have that empathy and be motivated to help.
It's easy to see where this is relevant to our jobs. I certainly didn't miss my best friend's birthday dinner for any other reason than compassion for an injured animal. There isn't a veterinarian alive who doesn't have compassion as a primary motivator for choosing this field- a desire to help heal sickness be that in the clinics or in the research lab.
But I think its important to remember that this emotion, this drive, is like any other emotion. It is important to feel it, but like all good things- moderation is key. I see far too often on our board compassion unchecked. Veterinarians bleeding out over wanting to save just one more animal. Agonizing over the one dog out a hundred this month they couldn't save.
And I also see that compassion abused. Clients, friends, family, staff members, even other veterinarians complaining that "if we really cared we would do X". We would just answer that 10th text message in the middle of the night from our elementary school teacher with a sick hamster. Give that client our home phone number. Do the procedure for free.
And this is where I think compassion does us harm. It is Abusive Compassion. We are abusing ourselves, and allowing others to abuse us with what should be one of our most important and noble traits. And that leads to Compassion Fatigue- where you have been so battered by these emotions and the expectations of others that you can no longer feel this driving force.
Luckily, this is in our hands to fix. We can set the boundaries that keep others from abusing us. We can recognize when our own compassionate drive is pushing us to do unhealthy things. You do not have to suffer. Well, maybe just a little. Let yourself feel that drive, that push to end pain in another creature. Help shoulder a burden for a moment. Let it motivate you. Just don't let it ruin you.
The Admin Team of NOMV is a group of veterinarians dedicated to improving veterinary mental health.