News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: "Compassion Fatigue" in Iraq

Thursday, December 29, 2005

"Compassion Fatigue" in Iraq

The military can always make something traumatic sound as though it came out of the mouth of a robot. Those who witness the trauma of war every day undergo a stress and dehumanization that no one who has never been there can imagine. But when the suffering is so great and your ability to relate to it becomes taxed to the limit, you suffer what the Army calls "compassion fatigue."

Philosophers and poets try to capture the terror and horror of war--but the violence is not only in what a person sees and does in the heat of battle or distress. It also leaves its seal on the spirit, a seal whose pain may never wear away. ...

Stars and Stripes recounts the life in war of Army Reserve Maj. Donald W. Robinson. He works as a surgeon and deals with the worst wounds. Like a true hero, he does not discriminate between Iraqi and American when it comes to saving lives and alleviating suffering. But the level of pain has left its mark:

When a patient died, Robinson said, his staff knew to leave him alone. He would find a quiet place, sometimes the hospital roof, and say a prayer.

“I wished I could have called that person’s mom or dad to say, ‘You know, I’m the one who took care of your son, and I want you to know that we did everything possible to save his life.’ I wish I could have done that for every single soldier or Marine or airman.”

Robinson frequently counseled young medics and nurses, worried about how they were coping with all the trauma cases. In Iraq, he was too busy to weigh the effect on himself. At home, however, he had difficulty sleeping. For two weeks he slept on the floor so as not to disturb his wife, Shari. He had nightmares, recalling the many amputations he performed.

Rather than dreams of helping patients, his were filled with the horror of their injuries. “It’s almost like you know you can help the person, but it’s just the intensity of what this person has gone through, and will have to live with. I would go to sleep and I would see that.”

In our hourlong interview, Robinson never mentioned his phone calls home to Shari “just to unload,” as she described it. During those calls, Shari said, Don was particularly troubled by the many children he treated who had been burned or had lost limbs. The Iraq experience made him miss his own children deeply, son Kimani, age 11, and daughter Karina, age 3.

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