Blog: Surviving caregiver trauma

Blog: Surviving caregiver trauma

Young cancer patients and their families often receive care over many years. Pediatric caregivers at Advocate Children’s Hospital often observe life changes and develop exceptionally close bonds with families. While strong attachments facilitate healing, they also amplify deep feelings of loss when a child dies. Along with the child’s family and loved ones, staff members may also experience deep grief along with physical and emotional stress. This can result in disrupted sleep, loss of appetite, pain, mental health issues, leaving a job or decreased focus and energy for work and life at home.

Recognizing the need for staff support, leaders from Advocate Children’s Hospital Oncology program and our Mission & Spiritual Care team came together in 2013 to find ways to overcome generalized feelings of helplessness and hopelessness that result from these profound losses. New interventions, from scheduled debriefings to group prayer or ritual to mindfulness practices were developed and have proven to be important to staff morale and resiliency.

As the Vice President of Mission and Spiritual Care, I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with nursing leadership and other hospital managers to find funding for this work, including from the LiveStrong Foundation. The funding allowed us to initially conduct three-day resiliency trainings for members of the Oncology interdisciplinary teams on our two children’s hospital campuses.

The grant funded the implementation of a train-the-trainer program with VitalHearts, a non-profit organization from Colorado, led by psychologist, Henry Tobey. Their Resiliency Training Initiative has the mission of caring for cancer treatment providers who suffer from secondary or vicarious trauma, which is a significant, although hidden concern. Secondary Traumatic Stress includes such reactions as: depression, anxiety, persistent trauma imagery, sleep disturbances, mistrust of their organization, isolating from family/friends, frequent illness and loss of mission or purpose in life, or a sense optimism, among other symptoms, due to the deep exposure to suffering that care providers are exposed to.

Trauma Resiliency Training revitalizes care providers, often saving the careers of those who work with cancer patients and survivors by providing them with resources and practices to become more resilient.

Participants in the first four trainings have overwhelmingly endorsed the program and would like to see others have the opportunity to take part.

“It allowed my staff to open up and talk more about the impact our daily work has on them,” says Tammy Klapp, manager of pediatric oncology. “We’ve started to incorporate what we’ve learned.”

“I appreciate the dedicated time and space to reflect. And, I gained insight by sitting and talking with the people I work with every day. It helps me to really listen to their experiences,” says Dr. Rebecca McFall, a pediatric hematologist and oncologist. “I think it increases my empathy and sympathy for my patients, my colleagues, and for my own family.”

To date, 90 members of the interdisciplinary team have participated. These additional trainings have allowed Advocate Children’s Hospital to reach beyond physicians and associates working in hematology/oncology units/clinics and now includes clinicians from multiple clinical areas and specialties.

“Learning techniques for managing emotional trauma is an essential part of physician well-being often overlooked by hospitals,” says Dr. Vinod Havalad.  “The skills I learned over those three days will not only help me cope with the inevitable difficult situations that arise in my daily work, but it will make me a better physician.”

The resiliency training and recent efforts from staff chaplains to provide regular staff support sessions, including weekly resiliency rounds, have begun to transform the culture of the hospital to be one where health care professionals are reflecting and living out of a place of resiliency.

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About the Author

Stacey Jutila
Stacey Jutila

Stacey Jutila, health enews contributor, serves as Vice President of Mission and Spiritual Care for Advocate Children’s Hospital. She has worked at Advocate Health Care for nine years, with the majority of the time at Advocate Children’s Hospital. She is grateful to work in an organization which strives to care for the whole person, body, mind and spirit. In her free time, she loves to run, cross country ski, cook, and is always looking for the next good book to read.