2016 Winning Essay

The 2016 A Nurse I Am Scholarship winners were asked to address the following:
As nurses continually interact with sick people, they may develop "compassion fatigue" over time and become hardened to the reality of difficulty and pain in patients' lives.
(1) Describe how one of the nurses in the "A Nurse I Am" videos overcame this challenge.
(2) How did their view of their patients help them maintain their compassion?
(3) Explain how you plan to maintain compassion in your nursing work over the long term.

Alasia Ledford

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

While each story in the "A Nurse I Am" documentary moved and inspired me, I found the advice of Robert Wilkinson, especially wise. Being a man who previously served in the U.S. Army during Desert Storm and continues to serve as a pediatric oncology nurse, I have no doubt that Mr. Wilkinson has faced more than his fair share of compassion fatigue. When you care and love as deeply as he clearly does, how can you not be broken down by tragedy and death? How does a sweet well of compassion, such as his, not become contaminated by the bitterness of suffering? I find his resilience remarkable and cannot help but wonder from where he draws his strength.

Mr. Wilkinson seemed prepared to answer such a question as mine. In the documentary, he spoke a great deal about the challenges of his position and how he dealt with those challenges. "You've got to find some kind of spirituality," he said. "Be willing to wail at God; be willing to laugh and make others laugh; don't be full of yourself; find your place or places you can go . . . to help you forget." Mr. Wilkinson found that place in a chapel. He took time to reflect and pray, time to spend with his family, and do the things he enjoyed like playing his dulcimer. He took time to heal his soul, so he could share his soul with his patients, whom he saw not only through the eyes of a nurse, but the eyes of a father, and I believe this helped him maintain his compassion. For him, his patients and their families were not rare "cancer cases;" they were everyday people, struggling to make sense of the labyrinth in which they found themselves. His character and advice resonated deeply with me.

I grew up with a father plagued by addictions, and there were times when I felt I just could not keep loving him, times when I felt bitterness creeping into my heart, but my faith and spirituality gave me hope, strength, and love. I learned how to shout and cry and plead and let go. Journaling became the means through which I could express my deepest self, the beauty, pain, anger, frustration, and hope I felt. The raw emotions that at times left me limp with exhaustion, were my muse and as the words bled onto the pages I found clarity and purpose in the mist and haze of sorrow. I also learned where to escape to find solace and comfort. The forests of the Appalachian Mountains surrounding my home renewed my wonder and awe of creation and life. There I would talk with God and listen; there he would heal my brokenness and awaken my soul to joy and hope.

Like many who share my spirituality and faith, I feel propelled to act with compassion because of the unconditional grace, mercy, and love God has offered me. Yet, I know that as a nurse, I will encounter compassion fatigue in a far deeper way than I ever have, and so I plan to face it the only way I know how, by nourishing my soul. The Holy Scriptures I follow, teach me to not grow weary in well-doing, and of course I then ask, "Right, but how? How do I keep from growing tired and weary?" As if in anticipation of my objection, scripture lays out the life of the one I am to follow, and I learn that he did not neglect his close relationships; he took time to pray, to get away to a quiet place and reflect and nourish his own soul. And so, I will seek out my own quiet place to reflect and pray, and I will continue to pour out my raw emotions onto the pages of journals, releasing into the ink the bitterness of suffering. I will walk through the forests and listen to the echoes of life, allowing the soothing balm of nature to heal my own brokenness, so that I can continue to heal that of others. And most importantly, I will remember that I am not alone, that there are other nurses like Mr. Wilkinson, reservoirs of wisdom, to whom I can turn. By taking these moments and practicing them regularly, by remembering who I am and seeing the shared humanity in my patients, I trust I will maintain compassion over the log term and not grow weary in well-doing.

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