Chicago physicians, nurses face 'compassion fatigue' from mounting gun violence

Mounting gun violence in Chicago has led physicians and nurses to experience "compassion fatigue," a mixture of burnout and traumatic stress in which caretakers become numb to and attempt to distance themselves from the grief they witness each day, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Data collected by the Tribune indicates the past 14 months have been one of the most violent periods in Chicago in at least two decades. In 2016, more than 760 of the 4,300 people shot in Chicago were killed. This year, at least 915 people have been shot with a total of 166 fatalities through mid-April, according to the Tribune.

Chicago nurses and physicians claim they "feel these shootings in their souls," according to the report. But the hardest part for medical professionals is knowing that providing treatment for violent crimes isn't a one-time ordeal. More often than not, clinicians must send patients right back into the violent neighborhoods they came from.

"It's devastating to see that over and over. You lose hope. You ask, 'When is it going to stop?' And no matter how hard you work and how good you [are at] your job, [the shooting victims] just keep rolling through the door," said Kate Sheppard, PhD, RN, a clinical associate professor at the Tucson-based University of Arizona College of Nursing who studies compassion fatigue. "There isn't a nurse I've met in 35 years who has lost compassion … They're emotionally saturated with grief. They cannot afford to care emotionally."

For some, attending to trauma patients and their families has become the "new normal." Catherine Humikowski, MD, the medical director of pediatric care at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital, decided to take a sabbatical for the first time in eight years to distance herself from the painful environment.

"On some level, are we less shocked by it because we've seen it more? That's the scariest thing, that we just get used to it and it becomes the new normal. So you shift what shocks you and then the box settles around something that seems normal that shouldn't be normal[,] and that's what I've felt is happening with me in my time here at the ICU," said Dr. Humikowski.

Researchers claim clinicians' passion to care for other often leads them to neglect self-care measures and potentially turn to self-medication or develop anxiety or depression as coping mechanisms, according to the report. To fight fatigue, some physicians have made it their mission to give back to the community by educating people on health disparities and encouraging them to view gun violence "as a disease that can be fixed," according to the report.

"You want to look at what's causing these people to resolve to guns. It's good to consider the psychological or socio-economic underlying factors," said Tifuh Amba, DNP, an acute nurse practitioner at the University of Chicago Medical Center. "Why is it happening in certain parts of Chicago? In those certain parts, why is it certain people? I'm not saying there are excuses, but maybe [nurses] can address some of those issues."

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