Are Nurses Traumatized By Their Patients?

Are nurses traumatized by their patients?

Most nurses have pretty stressful jobs.  Some nurses deal with trauma every day and it’s our jobs to help people get well, or at least keep them comfortable. It is ingrained in us that we must stay strong and mentally suppress any feelings and emotions that we feel  while caring for our patients.  Some of us are able to do this better than others.  We often joke about “not taking our jobs home”. But the reality is; we do!

I remember once when I was a surgical nurse in a level one trauma hospital.  A 16 year old patient arrived via stat flight, with multiple injuries from a motor vehicle accident.  We rushed her to surgery, but we were unable to save her.  Most of the time I was miraculously able to block out any emotions and do my job.  but this patient affected me and pulled severely at my heart strings. I don’t cry easily, but because I had a daughter that was the same age as this patient, I was unable to deal with it.  I stood with the family in the recovery room, while they cried hysterically and the mother and father were leaning over their daughter’s still body, begging her to please come back to them.  I remember wondering at the time, why did I  choose to be a nurse.  I turned to the anesthesiologist and whispered  I hate my job!

Nurses are first responders in many cases and we are exposed to horrible realities that are difficult to understand and absorb.  We learn very early on that if we don’t block our emotions, we will never survive in nursing.  Trauma becomes surreal to us.  I have driven home hundreds of times in a daze, trying to make sense of the horrible trauma I just witnessed.

When we think of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) our minds often drift to veterans and people with depression and other mental illnesses. But the truth is, many nurses do suffer from PTSD and we may not even realize it.

While many researchers have determined the reason for the nursing shortage to be related to emotional stress and burnout, PTSD is often overlooked,  Being confronted with traumatic events repetitively can cause a person to exhibit the symptoms of PTSD.   Everyone is different when it comes to the amount of trauma we can witness before we begin to realize that we just can’t take any more.

Unfortunately nurses are seldom offered the opportunity for counseling and therapy.  Nurses have a unique way of hiding emotions, but we all have limits.  PTSD can be extremely detrimental to your career and your health, but nurses will often deny their emotions and symptoms until they’re  knee-deep in addiction to alcohol, drugs and other self destructive behavior.  They fear rejection and live with the belief that because they are a nurse, they should be able to “fix themselves”.

I had a sister-in-law, who was a psychologist and an attorney.  She committed suicide in the barn of her home.  No one knew how badly she was suffering until we read her suicide note. In a nut-shell she said that since she was a psychologist she should have been able to help herself and because she was unable to treat herself, she believed that no one else would have the ability to treat her either. 

It is this mindset that gets nurses into trouble when it comes to dealing with psychological disorders. Nurses are the care givers and don’t do well when they reverse the role.  More nursing schools need to focus their attention on burnout prevention and the importance of nurses seeking help when they are experiencing psychological difficulties.

If you are experiencing any type of psychological difficulties that are impacting and interfering with your life and your ability to function as a nurse, you should speak with the employee health nurse to find out what your options are.  Don’t be afraid to speak up and admit you are experiencing a problem.  Talk with a coworker that you trust, so you don’t feel so alone.  Many nurses quit the nursing profession because they are unable to handle the effects of being emerged in the world of trauma, death and sadness.

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