“I began my job as a psychiatric nurse consultant at San Francisco General Hospital with the feeling that I had finally found my professional home. My colleagues were talented clinicians fiercely committed to providing excellent care to people in need. My patients were always challenging, occasionally frustrating, and frequently awe-inspiring.”
So begins the preface to Laurie Barkin’s award-winning 2011 book, The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit, her account of the five years she worked as a psychiatric nurse on the surgical trauma unit at San Francisco General Hospital. Told against the backdrop of patients who survived motor vehicle accidents, fires, falls, fists, knives, and bullets, the book is a series of gripping episodes that reveal the often tumultuous, unpredictable world of human-to-human caregiving.
If you grab a book like The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit
looking for stories of the incredible durability and capability of the body and spirit to heal themselves, you’ll find plenty to interest you. You will meet Maria, who was hit by a car after she ran wild with excitement into the streets of San Francisco upon receiving a surprise letter from her long lost love. A few days later her love appeared and they were seen cavorting together in the hospital hallways. You’ll meet Hope, who fell two stories at a rave party
, suffered multiple fractures, then went on to survive another kind of trauma at the hospital.
If you came for something closer to a glimpse of the flesh and bone wreckage that builds up like gaper's block on the human highway, you’ll find it here too: You will meet Keith, a decades-long heroin addict who witnessed his mother’s suicide when she landed next to him after she leapt from an upper floor of the housing project where he lived as a boy. You’ll meet Greg, who was shot in the heart working as a bouncer and lived to tell the tale. You’ll meet Rick, a heroin addict who contracts necrotizing fasciitis that eats away nearly all of his gluteus maximus before antibiotics and skin grafts stop the destruction.
Laurie’s podcast interview
with Terry Vittone
offers a deeper and more personal look into this jarring world of trauma where nurses explore the limits of their own strength and vulnerability as they help patients navigate what may be the most difficult crises of their lives. Central to the experience for many health care professionals is vicarious trauma.
Laurie explains. “Well, the themes from my book are vicarious trauma or secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue.
I wanted to make the point that first responders and hospital staff or anybody else who bears witness to the pain and suffering of others—and that includes judges, public defenders, teachers, social workers, counselors, anyone—can be permanently affected by that kind of witnessing. So it affects your beliefs about the world, your sense of safety in the world, your sense of security, your belief in human decency, your beliefs about love and family, and it also affects your physiological, psychological, and emotional foundation. That’s all shaken up or can be shaken up when you engage empathically with traumatized people. That is called vicarious trauma.”
When most of us enter a hospital or medical office, we might assume that the patients are unwell or frightened and the nurses are healthy and brave. In this interview, and throughout The Comfort Garden: Tales from the Trauma Unit
, Laurie Barkin shows us just how intimately integrated is the experience between the cared for and the caregiver.
Check out this other informative, entertaining episode of the CPI podcast series:
Unrestrained, Episode 14 – Dr. Sally Gillam, Chief Nursing Officer at St. David’s South Austin Medical Center, talks about her Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® quality improvement study and how the training significantly lowered violence in their 75,000 patient/year ED.