Phillips went on to say his own experiences with compassion fatigue were mild, leaving him a bit disoriented and a little depressed for a few days.
One experience occurred while he was enrolled in a one-year hospital chaplain residency at Duke Medical Center in North Carolina. Phillips was the on-call duty chaplain one evening.
“During that night, in a twelve-hour period, I was called to six death visits. Three of them were very traumatic and I can still remember them vividly,” he said. “For several days afterward, I was withdrawn, discouraged, feeling numb, lacked energy, and questioning my ability to be a chaplain. Fortunately, these feelings lasted only a few days and I was able to regroup, focus, and return to my regular routine.”
At other times in his career, Phillips said it was difficult not to take the problems of others personally.
“One night I was unable to get to sleep because I couldn’t stop thinking about a couple I was counseling through some marital difficulties,” he said. “I came to realize that I was owning their troubles, dysfunctions, wounds, and pain. I was allowing the deep emotion of it all to impact me personally. I also realized that for some of these soldiers and couples, I was working harder to resolve their distress than they were.”
After retiring from 26 years of chaplain ministry, CH(COL) Marc Gauthier, USA (Ret.), says he had fatigue he was not even aware of. “I felt much like a turtle tipped upside down. I knew I was there but didn’t know how I got there.”
He explained that while going through a mediation, the facilitator looked at him and said, “Marc, you need to find someone to grieve with you!”
“It caught me totally off guard and I thought, ‘And who would that be?’” he recalled. “However, I prayed that God would provide someone, and He graciously provided people and opportunities to process a backlog of grief that has accumulated over the years.”
The NLM goes on to say that compassion fatigue can impact standards of patient care, relationships with colleagues, or lead to more serious mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety, or depression.
Gauthier recounted another instance in which his unit had experienced a number of deaths through several months and was supporting in a rear detachment capacity.
“We have our first combat deaths in [Operation Iraqi Freedom], and I was a part of the notification team, providing follow-on care for two spouses and conducting the memorial service. The day after the service one of our chaplain assistants committed suicide. We found him in his room,” he said, adding that his supervisory chaplain made several extra trips just to provide pastoral care to the unit ministry. “He set the standard for chaplains caring for other chaplains when they’ve gone through a dark time. supervisory chaplains need to care for their own.”
When Ch(Lt Col) David Merrifield, USAF, was deployed to Iraq in 2009, his wife immediately noted a change in his demeanor while connecting via Skype.
“We had some very long days with counseling out the door for several weeks in a row as well as a few tragic events,” he recalled. “My wife immediately noticed something and wondered what was wrong with me. We hadn’t had comms in a few days and she could see and hear that I was different.”
Merrifield said he apparently made such comments to her as “I didn’t think I was making a difference and that I didn’t think I cared about people’s problems as much, and that I didn’t have enough hours in the day to walk people through the Word like I knew was necessary for real help and hope.
“Before this, I had never noted a lack of concern for people since becoming a chaplain in 2005.”