All patient names have been changed.
Caring for someone and watching them debilitate and then die is the saddest, most inevitable part of working with the elderly. For a long time, I felt like each person that died took a small part of me with them, and I worried about one day being whittled away to nothing. I became weary of burning out, an unfortunate reality in my industry.
My GP is a dear family friend and an incredible doctor; I told her I felt like working in this industry might be chipping away at me and that I couldn’t possible sustain this for an entire lifetime. She told me the following, which I admit sounds corny when you hear it, but I urge you to hear it out:
“I imagine every patient I’ve ever cared for and I have a connection, a heartstring between me and them. Living or dead, that connection remains between us; any time I’m feeling sad, frustrated or like I’m missing them, I tug their heartstring and there they are. They come to me and bring with them all the love and care we’ve shared, and I think about the good memories we have.
I have so many connections now that I feel rich, I have access to so many wonderful people and memories just by pulling their heartstrings. You may feel like your patients are taking something away from you or you’re giving them something, but you’re actually building something together; treat those connections as a support network you can access at any time.”
It took me a while to actually internalise it, and I somewhat balked at the idea of a “heartstring”. I kept it in mind though and adapted it into my thinking, and it’s become a vital way for me to view what can sometimes feel like a soul-crushing process.
Recently I’ve felt deflated due to a combination of things slowly wearing me down. Today I tugged Mary’s heartstring and brought back the smile she used to give when she saw it was me entering her room. I tugged George’s heartstring and brought back his fatherly wisdom and the proud way he would congratulate me for my uni results. I tagged Raymond’s heartstring and he told me same joke he used to tell me every time I’d see him. I tugged Dora’s heartstring and saw her naming her goldfish after me.
Those memories have reminded me of so much joy, pride and purpose; I’m still feeling a bit tender but I’m supported by the connections I’ve made. The more people you care for the more connections you get, and we’re lucky to be in this position that gives such great opportunities to do so. This technique isn’t the final solution to “burning out”, but is one tool you can evoke when you need it and it may help to give you a different perspective. If you do feel completely overwhelmed, you should see if your workplace offers any counselling services (you can often remain anonymous) or see a psychologist.
Let me know in the comments if you decide to give this a try, or what you pull when you tap into your own heartstring support network.