Nurse’s late grandmother taught her the importance of self-care

( I come from a family of nurses who all have influenced me on some level. My beloved grandmother’s recent passing spurred some introspection about what it means to be a great nurse, a great woman and a loving mother/sister/grandmother, and to leave this world with a lasting legacy. 

Muriel Isabel Watters Thatcher (1918-2011) led a full life of caring for and educating others in Baltimore as a graduate of Union Memorial Hospital’s nursing school, Class of ’39. Reputed to have nursed such notables as Al Capone and Johnny Unitas, Grandma Thatcher — a.k.a. “Da” — instilled in me the qualities of resilience, acceptance and the courage to lead quietly. She also demonstrated the art of self-care with her propensity to take luxurious baths, complete with Calgon bath beads, and to nurture her spiritual side through her church and community involvement.

The other nurses in my family — my mother, aunt and cousins — continue to influence me. Through their experiences and my own, I have witnessed the challenges experienced by nurses when nurturing their own physical, emotional and spiritual needs. Some are able to recognize work/life imbalance and distress, coping effectively to avoid professional and personal burnout, but others have maladaptive coping mechanisms.

I recently did some independent research to learn more about burnout and compassion fatigue. I was inspired by a conversation I had with nurses at work following my grandmother’s passing. I observed in my work and family colleagues that, as nurses, we tend to “suck it up” when dealing with stressors. We often put the needs of others first, sometimes to our own detriment.

We do this because providing care to others is inherent to our role, but I wonder: Are we carrying this over to our personal lives? Perhaps we have a natural tendency to shove our physical, emotional and spiritual needs aside during times of personal stress, just as we have become conditioned to do as nurses. Does this tendency contribute to an imbalance in our lives and result in maladaptive coping mechanisms? How can we avoid this?

Through my research, I learned that the physical, emotional and spiritual depletion associated with caring for patients in significant emotional pain and physical distress is known as compassion fatigue. A unique form of burnout first observed in emergency personnel who lost their ability to nurture, compassion fatigue may lead to inadequate self-care behaviors (such as increased self-sacrifice and overinvolvement in patient care). Other forms of burnout often result in indifference, disengagement and withdrawal.

Nurses from all specialties are susceptible to compassion fatigue and burnout. I suspect non-nurses who are natural nurturers tend to be susceptible as well. This issue likely has driven countless nurses and non-nurses to seek an alternative profession or to change their specialty after sensing a decline toward burnout.

My grandmother Da was a natural nurturer and exemplary nurse. She was accepting of all people and situations, steadfast and positive, relentless in her self-care up until the end, and she contributed to the field of nursing as an educator. Although I’m sure she experienced compassion fatigue at various stages in her nursing career and life, she developed successful coping mechanisms through a tireless pursuit of her own physical, spiritual and emotional well-being.

As nurses, we are not used to putting our needs first, but this is necessary. Introspection is required to recognize distress in ourselves and seek out the necessary help or guidance in developing an action plan to avoid compassion fatigue or burnout. This action plan should be carried out relentlessly and include positive self-care strategies and healthy daily rituals to enhance feelings of well-being and to replenish personal energy levels.

Da taught me the significance of performing the most basic self-renewal ritual, whether a simple tub soak or taking a moment to appreciate nature’s beauty. These habits have enabled me to practice responsible selfishness throughout my nursing career to avoid burnout. They cross over to my personal life as well.

I realize now that this lesson was Da’s last gift. I recognize it in each sand dollar I discover, each new view of the Great Smoky Mountains skyline and each luxurious soak in the tub, and I am fortunate to be able to impart her lesson to others.

Stephanie Weinsier, RN, DNP, ANP-BC, COHN-S, is a nurse practitioner in the American Express Healthy Living Wellness Center in Fort Lauderdale, FL