Last week we were so busy teaching three different courses every day that I never got a chance to reflect on our experience teaching the Staff at the Vet’s Hospital… they had their own course in the afternoons and it was completely different than the Vet’s course…

The course was born in a  particular moment. I was making a presentation several months earlier to the hospital staff, mostly doctors and psychologists about the value of the course for Vets. In the middle of my presentation one of the staff raised their hand and asked” What about us?” We experience trauma first hand all day long from being in contact with our patients… its like we get second hand PTSD… what can you do for us…?” and so we decided to teach both staff and vets side by side, each in their own course…

I was brought back in that moment to my own experience working in a hospital as part of my graduate student training, some twenty five years ago. I was a chaplain on a hospital intensive care unit and I learned a lot about trauma in a hurry. What happens when you first start working is that your heart opens to your patients who are usually in a lot of suffering or distress or both,  and you pour yourself out to them and sometimes get either involved or attached to their well being. All this is good, but then there comes behind them another patient in need, and then another and another, each with their own challenges and friends and family who also demand your attention. If you get too attached to one patient, then there’s nothing left for the next patient or the fifth patient and sooner or later not much left for yourself… so there are huge occupational risks in being a caregiver in a clinical setting. You have to find a way to balance your needs with your patients (and colleague’s) needs, and  find a way to keep on giving day after day and year after year while continually restoring yourself  and not succumbing to burnout…

Add to this the current state of operations in most Veteran’s hospitals with overwhelming need from many vets all returning now from the war zone,  and fewer resources managing ever more caseloads and you can begin to feel the level of stress and distress most of these people are living under every day. They care deeply about their patients… that’s why they got into their professions in the first place… but at least some of them over time had gotten really tired and afflicted by either discouragement or resignation.

Denise and I felt in the beginning of both courses that it would take longer for the Vets to begin to open up to the experience of the program, but we discovered that the staff had their own reasons for caution, not the least being that they were taking the course alongside colleagues and in many cases bosses,  and they were afraid of being too open and vulnerable in a way that might seem unprofessional… Many of them held back at first…Like the vets, when they finally began to experience some of the benefits in their bodies and minds, they began to bond more as a group and to really move out… their experience of stress and trauma was no less real than the patients they served… it was just a little less obvious and hidden under the surface of their commitments and busy schedules…

What strikes me now in looking back on those five days that we spent together are two things…

One… that this was a group of people with very strong values, who had gone into nursing and medicine with a high dedication to wanting to help others in need… that dedication was still there but it lay under a lot of fatigue, stress and trauma… once the stress began to dissolve that spark of inspiration began to re-emerge in many of them, and that was a wonderful thing to be present for… As they experienced the course for themselves, they were able to see how it could help their patients and hopefully they will eventually put that experience to good use in supporting their patients in using these techniques in their own recovery…

and Two… This was an exceptionally strong and courageous group of people. Once they began to see the benefits of the breathing and course points, many of them really decided to go for it… they threw themselves into the last several days of the course, showed up in terms of supporting   each other in many ways, and began to ponder  what their work lives might look and feel like with methods of regularly releasing stress and trauma… They were a  dedicated bunch who were willing to try anything that might improve the care that they could offer every day to their patients… and  themselves… “”Care is like breathing” we said…”it has to be taken in  in order to be given out…You can’t give from what you don’t have”… Hopefully this model of teaching Vets and Staff alongside each other can carry over to other courses in the future.

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