Last week was a heavy one in terms of clinical need. I was completing the latter half of a 12 day stretch and looking back at last week I realised I didn’t do enough self care. I missed my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) session last Monday as I was still feeling the effects of something dodgy I had eaten for lunch on Sunday. The instant weight loss was accompanied by instant energy loss from 36 hours of food poisoning.
My supervisor has been away for over a month and I am overdue for a professional supervision session, which I usually attend at least monthly. There are some months which are harder going in which I may need two sessions a month, and at times when it is especially severe even weekly sessions. The sessions allow me to reflect on my practice and how it affects me. I learn a lot from the sessions and have been attending regular sessions for the past 12 years. They have helped me become a better practitioner and are an important self-care practice.
Seasonal Affective Disorder isn’t usually a problem for me, but after the wettest Auckland July in many, many years I think I developed Rain Affected Despair. No it’s raining again, and again, and again. The down-pouring clouds have clouded my cognition. The constant humidity has led to this human feeling ‘mid’, as the young folks say. The real issue is I didn’t want my carefully styled hair to get wet after spending hours preparing it each morning. Also less opportunities for sunlight exposure.
I participated in many emotionally heavy conversations with patients and their family members last week. Many tears were shed. There were some tragic cases requiring my skills and some of them were challenging and pushed me to work at the top of my scope of practice. Professionally satisfying but the emotional labour was tiring.
I went without my usual Wednesday BJJ session due to a work commitment. I chose to attend a peer support network session as it only occurs once a quarter. It was good but took out another two hours from my day. I missed the physical aspect of BJJ but also the social aspect of catching up with club-mates.
By Friday, day 12, I was worse for wear and in need of a rest. The perfect storm had blown into my town and reminded me of my mere humanity. I have limits and am not a tireless robot. I will work on my self-care more this week, as I really need to.
Some cases will hit you in the emotional gut harder. Maybe the situation triggers something inside you, or the patient or their family members remind you of someone that you know. These are the sort of feelings that can be reflected upon during professional supervision sessions. Something has impacted you emotionally and you may not know what it was or why it had such an effect on you. The supervisor can help you to tease this out. It’s like they hold up a mirror that allows you to reflect on your emotional responses to the patient encounter.
The risk of connecting with another human is that as a human being you can feel hurt by the relationship. You need to make a connection to work with someone closely, but the connection puts you at risk of emotional harm. Strict boundaries may help delineate where you stand with each other. Some people you will identify with more and will feel closer to. Professional supervision sessions usually occur monthly and in the times in between, you need other self-care resources.
Debriefing with your team members can be a useful exercise and can lead to team building. Acknowledging the human feelings we all have felt dealing with the case. Some cases are tragic and sadness to some extent is unavoidable. Express the grief, and get over the loss, with your teammates. If you internalise the feelings too much they may make you feel unwell and you will be a less effective clinician. Informal debriefing with colleagues can be a good thing to do. Some cases will require a more formally structured and facilitated debriefing session.
If you are feeling upset about a patient encounter, your team members will likely be feeling similar. Talking through difficult cases with each other can be helpful. Don’t bottle up the emotions. Don’t take them home with you after work. Working in palliative care we do deal with lots of sad stuff, and it can get to you if you do not proactively take care of yourself and your teams. Self-care is an essential practice and is a crucial component of any clinician’s sustainable practice. Please look after yourselves and your teams.
In healthcare it is important to set clear boundaries in order to care for yourself and your patients in a sustainable fashion. In the practice of palliative care, boundary setting is even more important, as the therapeutic relationship can be very intense and intimate at times. We have to keep in mind that this relationship will likely end soon, with the death of our patient. It can be a difficult balancing act; using your humanity to make important connections with another human being; while at the same time keeping professional distance to protect the both of you.
That being said, it is inevitable that there will be some cases which will hit you harder than others. When a deeper connection has been made, you will feel the loss and grief much more strongly. Informal reflection with your team members and professional supervision have an important role to play in keeping us palliative care providers safe to continue doing the important job that we have to do. We need to remind ourselves that this is a job that not everyone in healthcare can handle. That those of us who chose to work in palliative care, owe it to ourselves and our patients to look after ourselves. We are a precious resource and if we do not take care of ourselves, we will deny our patients and their families the difference that we can make in their lives, and deaths.
After almost ten years of working exclusively in full-time palliative care practice I would like to share a case that reminded me of just how human I am, and how much value I obtain from professional supervision and from sharing with my team members.