Can You Care Too Much?

The past couple of weeks have been an emotional roller roaster. Just as I was starting to feel like I was adjusting to my job, I got slammed with visits from the Bad News Bears. And boy were they mean.

Last week several of the clients I have been working with most intensively started spiraling downward, and all at the same time. This week one is in the ICU and may not survive. Another is in the hospital and cannot safely be discharged home. Another is giving new meaning to the phrase “one step forward, two steps back” thanks to severe mental illness…every effort I make seems to blow up in my face. And today I stayed late to call 911 on a client experiencing dangerous medication withdrawal.

Not only is my confidence as a nurse shaken (who wouldn’t second-guess their skills with this seemingly black cloud following them around?), but I find myself emotionally drained as well. I have always struggled with shouldering too much burden and taking too much home with me at the end of a work day. When I worked in the PCU, I had nightmares about missing meds or forgetting to document something critical, and could not get the sound of beeping IV pumps out of my head.

Now my nightmares are of a different sort. Even when you set boundaries between yourself as nurse and your patient as consumer/client/call them what you will, community health nursing  often calls for an emotional investment beyond what I ever experienced in the hospital. I visit people in their homes, am invited to meet their families and neighbors and walk beside them through long-term struggles. So when clients are found down or have poor outcomes, my own distress is multiplied. This is personal.

My co-workers have noted the emotional exhaustion and we’ve spent considerable time debating the ever-present emotional conundrum: Is there such a thing as caring too much? How do we stay human and do our jobs effectively? What do we do with the pain and suffering we see….where do we put it so that it doesn’t eat away at us? Is the only choice really to care too much and have a breakdown or not care enough and lose your humanity?

What do you think?

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