Saturday, February 25, 2012

Book Review: The Comfort Garden - Tales From the Trauma Unit ...

I'm late posting this week after spending two days on the livingroom floor, resting and exercising a wayward lumbar disc back into place. While the view from the floor was not exactly exciting, the opportunity to read Laurie Barkin's award-winning new book, The Comfort Garden, was.

Laurie was a psychiatric nurse consultant on the surgical trauma service at San Francisco General Hospital for five years before leaving to heal her own vicarious trauma. Her book is a memoir of her work with traumatized patients; her relationships with her coworkers and family; her interactions with a healthcare system losing its way due, in part, to managed care and compassion fatigue; her own journey through the pain of secondary traumatic stress; and the healing and sustenance she finds in SFGH's Comfort Garden.

This is a book worth reading by anyone who works with traumatized people and their families. Between Laurie's compelling stories lie many insightful observations and pearls of wisdom:

There's a word for people like Rochelle: counter-dependent; people so phobic of being weak and dependent on others that they deny their own normal needs. Lots of nurses are counter-dependent, caring for others but unable to care for themselves or to allow others to take care of them. I should know. I'm one of them.
Too many of us nurses are bad about self-care. We're overweight; we smoke; we overwork; we slip into addiction. We're so used to being the helpers that we can't see when we ourselves need help.
I had begun to wonder if I was in danger of losing my grip; if the random trauma and human cruelty I've witnessed every day at work for the past four years has been affecting me because of some defect in my character. Now I know that it may have something to do with the dose of trauma I'm exposed to every week in the absence of enough support to ameliorate it.
Our director ... created a buoyant work environment and hired energetic and idealistic staff... he taught us to exaggerate and celebrate miniscule moments of success with our patients. I have applied that lesson to my work with all patients ever since...
I walk in The Comfort Garden when I need to clear my mind (of the trauma stories).
According to the most recent journal articles, people who dissociate in response to trauma are the most likely ones to develop PTSD. However, a good social support system can protect a person from developing PTSD. 
Resonance between people - the warm and responsive embrace between two souls - protects and heals us from the world's ills and makes possible its greatest bounties. 

From the point of view of style, I found The Comfort Garden an easy read but from a content standpoint, I was introduced to people and situations so authentic and well-drawn that I had to pause from time to time to pace my emotional response. That is not to say that Laurie uses gratuitous descriptions in her story-telling. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are few "gory details". Rather, it is her accurate depiction of unrelenting trauma exposure that took me back to my work in hospital settings and triggered familiar emotions.

The feelings I felt most strongly, though, as I finished this book, were those of gratitude for fine nurses like Laurie Barkin and hopefulness for a future that acknowledges the impact of secondary traumatic stress and strives to provide support and build resilience for all trauma workers.

This touching and inspiring story received the American Journal of Nursing Book of the Year Award for 2011 and it is deserving of the honour.

If you are interested in ordering a copy of The Comfort Garden, you can go to the online store at Moss Communications Publishing.

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