Last year, I was teaching our Pelvic Floor Series Capstone course. It was the end of day three of the course. Most, students were thanking us for a course that filled in so many gaps in their practice and taught them a whole new way to use their hands. They were feeling energized and excited to bring all the new information back to their patients who had plateaued, so this was a surprising and atypical comment. To those of you who are unfamiliar with Capstone, it is a course for experienced pelvic therapist who have already taken three of the series courses, and it was written to address truly challenging patients, to learn to problem solve with manual therapies, to address all the things that my co-authors and I wished we had known five years into our field. It teaches complex problem solving and more receptive and dynamic use of their hands. So, usually, by this course, therapists are fully committed to this field and geeked-out to get so many more pearls. They are usually on board and looking for more sophisticated tools.
As one student, Soniya (name changed) was walking out, she said, “I took this course to figure out if I want to treat pelvic patients, and I definitely don’t. It confirmed what I already knew about pelvic rehab being wrong for me.” I was so confused at that point. All I could say in that moment was, “Can you please tell me more about that? I’m interested.”
Soniya went on to explain that she used to be a pelvic therapist. She said she loved it at first. But, she got so enmeshed with her patients and found she stopped having energy for the rest of her life: her kids, her health, her own enjoyment. She said she would go into her “dark cave” treatment room with her patients, isolated with them one at a time, and come out spent and depleted at the end of the day. She clarified that it was rewarding helping people so profoundly, but there came a point when she had to choose between helping others and saving herself. She changed back to outpatient ortho, choosing to treat in the gym, dynamically interacting with other PT’s all day and not being one-on-one in a room with patients and her problems. She also changed to part time, stating she just couldn’t be around patients five days a week anymore.
I understood. I totally got it. I hear this all the time at courses from other pelvic PT’s: that they love what they are doing, and they feel called to this line of help, but ultimately, they are depleted. I have been there. Pelvic rehab can get to be a little confusing with all the blurred lines. There are so many boundaries that are different. We ask our patients questions normal PT’s don’t. We do treatments in areas that other therapists don’t normally touch or see. We are one on one in a private room with our clients. We know more private details about our patients than most of their friends and family. And…we care deeply and listen intently….sometimes many hours a day to stories of other people’s pain, fears, and stress. Often, we are a lone pelvic practitioner in a practice with other kinds of PT’s. Let’s face it, our colleagues who don’t do pelvic rehab think we are a little weird! With HIPPAA, we can’t talk to our coworkers about our heart wrenching stories. We are also not trained psychologists, and our training in PT school really didn’t address how to deal with all we face in a day, especially the psychological aspects.
A recent study found nursing students show compassion fatigue before they even graduate and that “Therefore, knowledge of compassion fatigue and burnout and the coping strategies should be part of nursing training”. Yet, as pelvic therapists we are taught to recognize signs of trauma in our patients, but we are not yet taught how to stop ourselves from being traumatized.
I asked “Soniya” if it had worked for her: changing back to outpatient ortho and going part time. She said it had for the most part. She felt she had her life and energy back for the most part.
So, I asked “Soniya” how she landed at Capstone? What brought her here? It turns out her boss had asked her to come to Capstone and consider going back to pelvic rehab. So, she came and heard about all kinds of problem solving and new research with very complex patients at Capstone: cancer, multiple surgeries, systemic inflammation, endometriosis, and even gender affirming/change surgeries. She learned about complex hormonal issues, pharmacology and anatomy she hadn’t ever considered as an experienced pelvic therapist. She spent around 10 hours that weekend in lab, learning new ways to use her hands to make change. At the end, she said the thought of going “back in the cave” with such complex patients and having her hands on them all day long was draining to her. She just couldn’t go back.
There is a point where caring so much and wanting to help becomes counter-productive to us, until we burn out. We can develop true compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue makes us feel apathetic, spent, and sometimes even jaded or cranky. But, how do we turn that caring off in time? Our compassion is what led us to this field in the first place.
This post is a two-part series on practitioner burnout and compassion fatigue from faculty member Nari Clemons, PT, PRPC. Nari helped to create the advanced Pelvic Floor Series Capstone course, which is available several times each year. Nari is also the author and instructor for Boundaries, Self-Care, and Meditation, Lumbar Nerve Manual Assessment and Treatment, and Sacral Nerve Manual Assessment and Treatment. Stay tuned for part two in an upcoming post on The Pelvic Rehab Report!
Mathias CT, Wentzel DL. Descriptive study of burnout, compassion fatigue and compassionsatisfaction in undergraduate nursing students at a tertiary education institution in KwaZulu-Natal. Curationis. 2017 Sep 22;40(1):e1-e6. doi: 10.4102/curationis.v40i1.1784. PMID: 2904178