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The Price of Compassion

Malkie Schulman

An eye-opening look into the world of professionals who devote their lives to caring for those around them

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

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The same images of violence that disturb the traumatized victim can haunt the responder. But while trauma survivors have only their own horrific tales to tell, the responder sees and hears many horrific stories, often one after another


Many of us have work stress. But imagine the strain on first responders, who deal with life-and-death emergencies on a daily basis. How do social workers listen to stories of trauma every day without burning out? What do palliative- care staffers do to maintain their equilibrium despite the intense emotional demands of the job? An eye-opening look into the world of professionals who devote their lives to caring for those around them
 

E

 li Fischer, a Flatbush Hatzoloh member, still chokes up when he remembers a call from 25 years ago. “An eight-year-old child was hit by a truck and killed instantly. We were there to comfort the shocked and grieving family, plus deal with the police and the city. I was so shaken I couldn’t go into work for two days after that. 


“We’re a volunteer organization,” Eli stresses. “We do this work from our heart — it affects us deeply.”

To process his shock and grief, Eli went for counseling. “Only after realizing that G-d, for reasons known only to Him, wanted this tragedy to happen, and there was nothing we could have done to change the outcome, was I able to get back to myself. But even decades later, the scene of that tragedy is still engraved on my mind.”

For workers in many fields, the daily demands of appearing calm in the face of difficult interactions with customers or coworkers can leave them feeling depleted. But when your workday involves engaging with other people’s trauma, your job can produce acute and dramatic symptoms.

People in caring professions — nurses, social workers, therapists, first responders, hospice workers, and others — who are exposed to other people’s trauma can even develop the same range of symptoms as survivors and victims of the trauma, according to Dr. David Fox, forensic and clinical psychologist and the director of Project Chai, the Crisis Intervention, Trauma and Bereavement Department of Chai Lifeline. Dr. Fox explains that the same images of violence that disturb the traumatized victim can haunt the responder. But while trauma survivors have only their own horrific tales to tell, the responder sees and hears many horrific stories, often one after another.


The Steep Cost of Caring

Dr. Fox, along with his associate director, Zahava Farbman, MSW, ABD, spends a lot of his time assisting interventionists, a term that describes professionals who are trained to provide crisis and trauma intervention. It’s not uncommon, he says, for interventionists to have an emotional or spiritual crisis because of their exposure to the intense suffering of others.

“I remember one interventionist who was called to the scene after a mother and child died in childbirth,” he relays. “Each child had to be told the news in an age-appropriate manner. Unfortunately, the family neglected to mention that one of the siblings had a psychiatric disorder. When the boy was told of his mother’s death, he descended into a full-blown psychosis and attempted suicide.

“The interventionist was shattered — he held himself responsible for triggering the psychosis in the child. He had to undergo one-on-one counseling both psychologically and spiritually so he could accept and recognize both his role and limitations.”

Hatzolah members are used to dealing with life-and-death situations, but even they have to emotionally prepare when they receive a call for an “MCI” — a “major casualty incident.” “The worst,” says Eli, “is when the call ends in a disaster and Hatzolah members find themselves hashing and rehashing what went on and what they could’ve or should’ve done differently.” 

(Excerpted from Family First, Issue 585)

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