• Andrew Williams

Helping Those Who Help Others

Updated: Jan 5

Princeton Health Chaplain Focuses on Health Care Professionals’ Well-Being

Health care professionals may confront human distress and death regularly, yet that does not mean it gets easy for them.

“Individuals who gravitate toward health care careers care deeply about others, and they can be deeply affected by the suffering they bear with patients and families,” said Samuel Yenn-Batah, a chaplain with Princeton Health’s Department of Religious Ministries. Deaths and complex illnesses, whether involving patients, coworkers, or loved ones in their personal lives, can take a toll on staff members.

Research shows that health care workers are especially susceptible to burnout and compassion fatigue, a condition characterized by a gradual desensitization over time caused by overexposure to death and serious illness. Health care professionals also are vulnerable to moral distress, an emotional state that arises when people must behave in a way that conflicts with their values — for example, providing or withholding life-extending care to people with terminal illnesses.

Yenn-Batah’s role as manager of pastoral care is to help Princeton Health employees, physicians, and volunteers work through these issues, said the Rev. Matthew Rhodes, director of Religious Ministries.

The department has always been available to help in such situations, but this is the first time that mission has been specifically assigned as part of a chaplain’s regular duties, Rhodes said. Human Resources, which oversees Religious Ministries, championed the idea. It is not necessarily easy to identify people in need of assistance. Rhodes said warning signs include difficulty sleeping, isolating oneself from others, or overreacting to situations. Yenn-Batah added that caregivers might experience panic attacks, headaches, gastrointestinal issues or a decreasing motivation to continue their health care careers.

Those individuals may not come forward on their own.

“As health care workers, when someone else says, ‘Help!’ we are the first to run in,” Rhodes said, “but we can’t always bring ourselves to ask for help when we need it.”

Yenn-Batah rounds at Princeton Medical Center (PMC), especially in departments with high-risk patients, to provide support and care to staff members. When those who are experiencing compassion fatigue, moral distress, or personal challenges do not speak up, their friends on the unit might encourage them to seek support by talking with Yenn-Batah.

“When coworkers look out for each other’s well-being, they are also looking out for their patients’ well-being,” Yenn-Batah said.

Staff often benefit from talking through difficult thoughts and feelings, rather than stifling them, as a way to reduce the toll of being a health care provider. Yenn- Batah meets with people individually or in groups, depending on which is more appropriate to the situation.

This summer, he met frequently with staff members in PMC’s Center for Maternal & Newborn Care who had experienced the deaths of two coworkers, Jyothi Thomas and Sharon Braconi. The two nurses died only weeks apart between mid-June and early July.

Yenn-Batah’s work with the staff ultimately led to a memorial service for both nurses that was held July 31 in the Healing Garden, outside PMC’s Edward & Marie Matthews Center for Cancer Care.

About 50 people attended, including family members of both Thomas and Braconi, physicians, nursing leaders and executives from across Princeton Health, and nurses and other staff members from Labor & Delivery, Mother-Baby, and the Cancer Center.

The memorial included prayers, poetry readings, and songs performed by Carolyn Schindewolf, a health educator with Princeton Health Community Wellness, and friend of Princeton Health Joseph DiLiberto. The service concluded with a release of butterflies, which Yenn-Batah noted are symbols of new life and freedom.

“It was a pleasure to work with the chaplains to plan such a beautiful service in memory of our beloved friends and coworkers,” said Susan Straszynski, MSN, nurse educator and perinatal bereavement coordinator at PMC. “I think that having Sharon and Jyothi’s families be a part of the service was meaningful for everyone to share our love and grief for these two wonderful nurses.”

Rhodes said Religious Ministries will look to hold similar memorial services for employees in the future. In addition, there are plans in the works to hold quarterly memorials for patients who have passed away.

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