• compassion fatigue;
  • descriptive phenomenology;
  • emergency nursing;
  • intimate partner violence;
  • secondary traumatic stress



To report a study of emergency nurses' experiences of caring for survivors of intimate partner violence.


Emergency nurses have the opportunity to intervene during the period following exposure to intimate partner violence when survivors are most receptive for interventions. The confrontation with the trauma of intimate partner violence can, however, affect emergency nurses' ability to engage empathetically with survivors, which is fundamental to all interventions.


The research was guided by the philosophical foundations of phenomenology as founded by Husserl.


A descriptive phenomenological inquiry grounded in Husserlian philosophy was used. The phenomenological reductions were applied throughout data collection and analysis. During 2010, concrete descriptions were obtained from interviewing 11 nurses working in emergency units of two public hospitals in an urban setting in South Africa. To arrive at a description of the essence, the data were analysed by searching for the meaning given to the experience of caring for survivors of intimate partner violence.


Emergency nurses in South Africa are often witnesses of the emotional and physical effects of intimate partner violence. Exposure to the vulnerability and suffering of survivors elicits sympathy and emotional distress. Emergency nurses are left with the emotional impact and disruptive and recurrent memories.


Exploring the tacit internal experiences related to caring for survivors of intimate partner violence revealed emergency nurses' vulnerability to the effects of secondary traumatic stress. The findings generated an opportunity to develop guidelines through which to support and empower emergency nurses.