I have a sneaking suspicion I'm not alone in this, but I would like to hear from others in the field. What I am referring to is what one of my co-workers calls the "crazy cancer nurse" phenomenon. Every few months or so I go through a total catharsis (and yes, it does usually coincide with "that time of the month"). I wake up in the middle of the night with an intense feeling of sadness and start sobbing uncontrollably. It started a few years after I had worked as an oncology nurse. The first time it happened after I was married, my poor husband didn't know what to do. It was 3am and I didn't want to wake him so I took a shower thinking it would cover the sound of my crying - it didn't. Since then we talked about it and now it's just a fact of life - every few months I just need to cry it all out and I feel better.
I've been doing some research on this but I'm not really sure what to call it. I'm not depressed, I love my work, I am a happy person and I would in no way describe myself as burned out or suffering from compassion fatigue as defined by the article referenced below: "Compassion fatigue: a severe malaise as a result of caring for patients who are in pain or suffering." (Aycock & Boyle, 2009, p. 183).
Probably the closest description I could find is "Secondary traumatic stress disorder: encountered by those who care for people who are directly experiencing a traumatic experience; also may be referred to as vicarious trauma, indicating secondary distress imposed by witnessing trauma" (Aycock & Boyle, 2009, p. 183). It also seems like it could be some sort of delayed, vicarious grief that I feel on behalf of my patients and their families. I don't know though. I avail myself of the many services out there that are shown to help with burn-out and compassion fatigue, such as counseling, the employee assistance program, education regarding stress and coping mechanisms, and staff retreats. I also work with an amazing team of nurses - I love them all and can't imagine doing what we do without such a strong source of support.
I consider what I do to be an honor and a privilege, to work with people during one of the most personal and gut-wrenching time of their lives. But still, what we do is just so darn sad. Is this response normal, or should I be concerned/is this a warning sign of something more serious? I tell you, when you see a 23 year old woman who gave birth to a baby only for the doctors to find a belly full of cancer...it's just not right. She died two weeks later without ever seeing or holding her baby. How can you not cry? But sometimes I wonder, do other nurses have this random choking sob thing, or am I just an oddball?
Aycock, N. & Boyle, D. (2009). Interventions to manage compassion fatigue in oncology nursing. Clinical Journal of Oncology Nursing, 13(2). doi:10.1188/09.CJON.183-191.