AIDS workers get help with 'compassion fatigue'

Kindness to self allows one to be kinder to others, said Nancy Birck, who leads the AIDS ministry at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Sykesville.

During a service at the church, Ms. Birck promised kindness, nurturing and spiritual replenishment to all who help people with AIDS.


About 20 counselors, clergy members, social workers and family members accepted her offer. For three hours Thursday, they made the change from care givers to receivers.

Dr. Jim Larson, president of the Center for Renewal in Baltimore and chaplain of the AIDS Interfaith Network, led the session and encouraged spirited participation.


"AIDS is a chronic epidemic which spreads loss after loss," Dr. Larson said. "Whether you are new to care giving or a veteran ready for sabbatical, you can experience compassion fatigue."

He urged the group to share their stories and find joy amid the grief that is "so much a part of our experience as care givers."

"Give yourself permission to nurture yourself," he said. "It will put water back in the well of your souls."

The group included caseworkers from Howard, Frederick and Washington counties, hospice volunteers and others who are caring for people with AIDS daily.

Although the conversations flowed freely, many participants requested confidentiality for this story.

One young mother showed a photo of the smiling child she adopted as an infant. A few months after the adoption, the baby tested positive for the AIDS virus. The parents would like to connect with a support group.

"I wish more people in our situation would make themselves known," the mother said.

Gregg Harpster, a home health care and hospice worker, volunteers as a buddy to people with AIDS.


"This program today is a great relief for me," he said. "I deal with the terminally ill all the time. I am always learning from them, but the deaths, which often come in multiples, affect me."

Dr. Larson gave the group a packet of drawings and asked them to select the ones most appropriate to their experience. One caseworker selected a steaming bowl of soup.

"It reminds me of what we offer -- warmth and support," she said. "It is not a cure, but it helps get you through."

A registered nurse who works with pregnant AIDS patients and their children at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore chose a budding flower.

"People are still growing and learning, and there are so many things we can do to help our patients still bloom," Barb Robinson said.

Ms. Robinson said the patient confidentiality required by her job makes grieving difficult.


"There is so much, almost too much grief," she said. "We can talk about it at work, but at home and with friends, I can't give my patients a name. Saying 'the patient' is so impersonal."

Those who deal daily with AIDS often experience multiple losses, Dr. Larson said. "It is a revolving door, and we spin in circles," he said. "We deal with the dying, the sick and those who have just discovered they have the disease.

"We must keep a sense of boundary, so we are not consumed. Yet, we must always hope we can still give someone quality in life."

Dr. Larson led a meditation and ended with a prayer that "the song never goes out of your souls. Know you are not alone in this journey."

Many participants promised to come to future sessions.

Ms. Birck said, "We won't say good-bye, only take care of yourself."


Although many people are lulled into thinking the virus has peaked, Dr. Larson said, "actually AIDS is becoming a much worse threat. Many long-term survivors are dying and the initial wave of care givers are tiring or dying themselves."

In his practice, Dr. Larson works with many homeless, about 25 percent of whom are infected with the AIDS virus. The interfaith network, which provides funeral assistance grants to families, gave $300 each to 48 area families for burial expenses in 1992. Last year, the agency ran out of money after helping 90 families. "We could have helped 50 more," Dr. Larson said.

Trish Miller, an adult-services worker with the Washington County Department of Social Services, said after the service, "The biggest problem with AIDS is that people don't know that it is everywhere."

Dr. Larson said there is "no end in sight" and he will continue his efforts to help both patients and care givers.