Compassion fatigue has impact in ERs as well

Kathleen Flarity (center), here conducting a training at Memorial, knows all too well how compassion fatigue can impact emergency room staff and military medical personnel.

Kathleen Flarity (center), here conducting a training at Memorial, knows all too well how compassion fatigue can impact emergency room staff and military medical personnel.

Caregivers may experience compassion fatigue when they are continually exposed to traumatic injuries, often seen during war, and also inside hospital emergency rooms.

Memorial Hospital Nurse Kathleen Flarity also works as a commissioned colonel in the Air Force Reserves. She has studied compassion fatigue since being deployed to Afghanistan.

“I just finished 33 years in the military,” Flarity said. “I have watched countless friends and colleagues, both in the military and civilians, suffer the effects of caring for the wounded and caring for critically ill and injured patients.

“It’s not normal for a 19-year-old respiratory therapist to take care of … a triple amputee.”

Her extensive experience led Flarity to study compassion fatigue, allowing her to learn how to help prevent it and to treat caregivers who experience it.

Trained by a specialist

On her own, she traveled to Florida to study with renowned traumatologist Dr. Eric Gentry. Her study there resulted in her becoming a certified compassion fatigue specialist.

Nathan Mesnikoff, director of spiritual and volunteer services for Memorial Hospital, is also trained by Gentry.

Together and individually, Mesnikoff and Flarity teach methods for dealing with compassion fatigue to a wide range of professions.

Not only do they teach nurses and physicians, but they also train military personnel, dispatchers, chaplains, “anyone who works with high-intensity situations,” Mesnikoff said. Flarity just returned from teaching at an international forensic nurses conference in California.

Training teaches individuals how to “adjust their attitudes about their work and life to develop more resiliency to stresses,” Mesnikoff said.

Training includes developing an understanding of how stress affects a person physiologically and helping the student develop techniques for dealing with the circumstances present at any given moment, he added.

The body reacts to situations with stressors in a fight-or-flight fashion, he added.

“Having a bear jump out at you will have a different reaction [than] if you spill coffee on yourself,” Mesnikoff said.

“In our environment, where you’re constantly being faced with high-intensity situations, you need to develop techniques where fight-or-flight does not dominate.” When caregivers are in a fight-or-flight moment, they’re less able to deal with the subtleties of medical emergencies, he added.

“Helping our colleagues [stay] in that calm space helps them be better providers,” he said.

After training, nurses experienced statistically significant improvement in burnout and secondary traumatic stress, Flarity said. They also improved in compassion satisfaction, the joy people feel from doing their jobs, she said.

“I found it to be a valid tool in professionals’ quality of life. We tested the participants five weeks later,” Flarity said.

Whether the training maintains its resiliency one year later is yet to be determined, she said.

“My goal is to take it to the military. It would be a challenge to get it to the military, but I think it works,” Flarity said. “It’s what I’m most proud of.”

Flarity’s military career

In addition to her job as a nurse at Memorial, Flarity serves as mobilization assistant to the assistant Air Force surgeon general in medical force development and also to the assistant Air Force surgeon general, nursing service.

She began her military career in 1980 when she served as a combat medic in the Army in Korea. She was commissioned in the Army Reserve in 1988 and continued her military career while working as a nurse.

She was assigned to the 50th General Hospital in Seattle. As head nurse there, she deployed to Saudi Arabia during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. During her military career, she earned a number of college degrees, including a Ph.D. in education and a doctorate of nursing practice.

In 1995, Flarity transferred to the U.S. Air Force Reserve in Washington.

The Air Force Reserves commissioned her a colonel in 2011.

“Kathleen is one of the most exceptional people I’ve met,” Mesnikoff said. “She is absolutely tireless, incredibly devoted.”

“I’m a good multi-tasker. I’m organized,” Flarity said. “I’m very blessed and I have a very supportive family.”

“Both of us have used this training to teach others and to transform our own lives,” Mesnikoff said.