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A Trauma Nurse Reflects On 'Compassion Fatigue'

Sometimes, even professionally compassionate people get tired.

Kristin Laurel, a flight nurse from Waconia, Minn., has worked in trauma units for over two decades. The daily exposure to distressing situations can sometimes result in compassion fatigue.

"Some calls get to you, no matter who you are," she says.

That burnout is what Laurel says she was trying to understand when she wrote her semi-autobiographical poem, Afflicted. The poem delves into the night shift of an emergency room nurse in Minneapolis, weaving together stories of patients who are homeless, addicted to drugs or victims of homicide.

Ten years ago, Laurel took a writing workshop in Minneapolis and earned a two-year fellowship that introduced her to the world of contemporary poetry. She found that, unlike other forms of writing, poetry had an efficiency and raw honesty that made it a fitting outlet for her observations as a trauma nurse.

Laurel published her first collection of poems, Giving Them All Away, after winning the Sinclair Prize for poetry in 2011.

She says that writing allowed her to acknowledge her darker experiences in the ER while also taking care of herself.

"It's a way of letting go," she says, especially of patients who die. "I acknowledge their life as well as let go of my grief. There's definitely power and healing in that."

Listen to Kristin Laurel read her poem


Kristin Laurel

It is the night shift, and most of Minneapolis does not know

that tonight a drunk man rolled onto the broken ice

and fell through the Mississippi.

He lies sheltered and warm in the morgue, unidentified.

Behind a dumpster by the Metrodome

a mother blows smoke up to the stars;

she flicks sparks with a lighter

and inside her pipe, a rock of crack glows

before it crumbles into ash

and is taken by the wind.

Another mother waits up for her son;

he was shot in the chest, then pushed out of a fleeing car.

He bleeds on black pavement, exhaust fumes hover over him.

Through the back doors of the ER

medics dump off the indigent

and black-booted cops track in salt and sand.

We are all misplaced.

An Indian brave

is just plain drunk;

the white paint on his cheeks and nose

is from huffing paint.

He is snoring off his stupor

from drinking bottles of Listerine

(the poor man's liquor).

It's so easy to judge

but we are all broken, in one way or another;

The officer was just trying to clean up the streets

keep his back seat sanitary

when he picked up another filthy drunk

and shoved him into the trunk of his squad car.

The young nurse was conned

into being callous;

It only took being spit at, being called a bitch

and one punch to the face, to learn to be gruff

and keep them all cuffed to the bed:

She takes off soiled jeans,

uncovers scraps of a shredded newspaper

the homeless man's underpants (pissed-on words).

A grimy, tattered shirt is stuck to his chest,

she peels it off, holding her breath, while

flakes of dead skin detach into the air.

In one more hour it will be daybreak.

She will go home to her clean house,

her white down comforter on a pillow-topped bed.

But, she knows,

there is an affliction in the air.

Even the snowflakes fall like ash.

She washes her hands.

April is National Poetry Month, and Shots is exploring medicine in poetry through the words of doctors, patients and health care workers. The series is a collaboration with Pulse: Voices Through The Heart Of Medicine, a platform that publishes personal stories of illness and healing.

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Meredith Rizzo is a visuals editor and art director on NPR's Science desk. She produces multimedia stories that illuminate science topics through visual reporting, animation, illustration, photography and video. In her time on the Science desk, she's reported from Hong Kong during the early days of the pandemic, photographed the experiences of the first patient to receive an experimental CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease and covered post-wildfire issues from Australia to California. In 2021, she worked with a team on NPR's Joy Generator, a randomized ideas machine for ways to tap into positive emotions following a year of life in the pandemic. In 2019, she photographed, reported and produced another interactive visual guide exploring how the shape and size of many common grocery store plastics affect their recyclability.