Who Cares for the Caregivers?

Caring for severely injured soldiers during nine tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan takes its toll.

From left: Corporal Mike McCann, Dr. Marc Richman, Major Roger Rodriguez, Tim Cooper, Dr. Todd Grande, Mariann Kenville-Moore, Lori Sitler

During one harrowing medical transport flight, retired Major Rodger Rodriguez, a senior Air Force flight nurse, recalls his aircraft being shot at as medics left the ground. He was so stressed that he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He sought help, was relieved of his duties, and then retired from military service. Professional caregivers like Rodriguez who work with traumatized people experience cumulative emotional strain, known as secondary or vicarious trauma, or compassion fatigue.

Rodriguez shared his personal story at a recent workshop that was held simultaneously at WilmU’s New Castle and Dover campuses and led by the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Corporal Lloyd “Mike” McCann, a Delaware State Police trooper who was shot in the line of duty, joined him. McCann, who returned fire and killed the suspect during one incident, related how law enforcement officers often face secondary trauma multiple times per shift as they respond to high-stress incidents and need to make split-second, life-and-death decisions.

Rodriguez and McCann were part of a panel of professionals from various fields who spoke after a screening of the award-winning documentary “Portraits of Professional CAREgivers: Their Passion, Their Pain,” which features child protective workers, nurses, medics, police officers and counselors who face compassion fatigue while performing their duties. The powerful film hit home with the audience of more than 200 attendees who described it as thought-provoking and moving. It also served as an excellent platform for the workshop.

Four WilmU faculty members rounded out the panel:  Dr. Todd Grande, assistant professor in the Clinical Mental Health Counseling program; and adjunct instructors Timothy Cooper, Dr. Marc Richman and Mariann Kenville-Moore.

Richman, also the chief of Correctional Healthcare Services at the Delaware Department of Correction and a psychologist in private practice, and Kenville-Moore, a licensed clinical social worker and director of policy and advocacy for the Delaware Coalition against Domestic Violence, related their personal experiences with vicarious trauma. Richmond urged the audience to be aware of their own trauma and engage in self-care. According to Kenville-Moore, safe and supportive working environments that foster cultures of trust and understanding among caregiving professionals are needed.

Grande stressed to counselors and therapists the importance of healthy coping strategies and adequate supervision to address potential secondary trauma. Cooper, the director of Public Health’s Office of Preparedness, expressed concern about professionals who respond to community disasters and are exposed to vicarious trauma. His advice to audience members: “Provide great training for staff, educate your personnel, and create a culture where people feel they can seek help.”

Dr. Doris Lauckner, chair of WilmU’s Mental Health Counseling program, points to research that shows the negative effects of stress and trauma on physical and mental well-being.  “Professionals may think they are immune to such stress, but they’re not,” she says. “It’s a topic that’s often unrecognized or addressed by caregivers or the places they train or work. We hope that the film and panel discussion shed light on this important topic and encourage professional caregivers to find ways of coping, healing and recovering from challenging work experiences.” WU

—Lori Sitler