Film explores the cost of ‘compassion fatigue’ on relief workers
KATHLEEN MERRYMAN; STAFF WRITER
Three students at Pacific Lutheran University set out last fall to make a documentary about how quickly people tire of making relief donations after a disaster.
As they researched donor fatigue, they saw discouraging patterns. Donations to Federal Way-based World Vision after the earthquake in Haiti, for example, dried up after 17 days.
But, as interesting as that topic is, they found something more profound as they interviewed the people who respond to those disasters: the toll their work takes on them.
“It’s the relief workers who are overwhelmed,” said chief videographer and producer Elizabeth Herzfeldt-Kamprath, 21. “That’s where we wanted to take it. As we found professionals in the area, we realized how widespread this topic is.”
The resulting documentary film produced by PLU’s Medialab, “Overexposed: The Cost of Compassion,” will premiere today in Seattle.
In the film, World Vision photojournalist John Schenk talks about his assignment during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. An estimated 800,000 people died.
Schenk’s job was to make the world care enough to give money for relief work.
He did not realize it, but he had been using up chunks of his inner strength as he visited overwhelmed hospitals. He took pictures of kids missing arms and legs, and of piles of machetes.
Then his team heard of a church where the people who had sought refuge were blasted with hand grenades inside and hacked to death with machetes when they fled outside.
“I wanted to get out of there instantly,” he said, describing the scene. “My heart just hit overload.”
Retired New York City firefighter Bobby Senn remembers his work recovering bodies at the World Trade Center.
“Every time I carried someone out, I carried myself out,” he said.
Then on a Christmas morning, he responded to a fire that took him to that same point of overload.
PLU filmmakers Katie Scaff, Hailey Rile and Herzfeldt-Kamprath had the wisdom to look beyond the big disasters, to bring the topic home.
Caregivers, one of their experts said, are born, not trained. They believe their purpose in life is to give of themselves to others, through work, empathy and money.
They listen to their friends talk through grief.
They fight fires, respond to wrecks, and deal with criminals and the harm they do.
They help people facing foreclosure try to save their homes.
They counsel rape victims, soldiers scarred by war, people who are homeless.
They feel pushed to keep going because the need is never gone, and people assume their hearts and spirits can’t be broken.
They work on a scale that runs from optimal and ordinary functioning, down to brownout, burnout and impairment.
Schenk called that last stop “compassion fatigue.” Some clinicians refer to it as vicarious trauma. Whatever the term, it’s the point at which a helper can’t keep running on empty.
There are all kinds of wrong ways people try to refuel on the way down: denial, drinking, drugs, overeating, smoking, withdrawing, poor health habits, too much television.
The veterans of compassion have crafted their own rescue techniques. They don’t wait for others to tell them they’re good people; they affirm it to themselves. They realize their nightmares are a natural response to what they’ve experienced. They celebrate the silly things, giggle together, have potlucks and give prizes. They figure out how to leave work behind. They exercise and spend time with family and friends.
Sometimes, when someone asks them to help, they even say no.
PLU students who participate in MediaLab make a new documentary film each year. The program is part of the communication department on the Parkland campus.
They recognize that “Overexposed” is the proverbial news you can use. They hope to get it aired on public television, locally and nationally.
“We want it to be educational and accessible to anyone,” Herzfeldt-Kamprath said.
And, they said, they still intend to tell that donor fatigue story.
“We have so much footage and so many topics to explore,” Herzfeldt-Kamprath said.
“We want to create mini-episodes.”
Kathleen Merryman: 253-597-8677