Empathy: either you get it or you don’t

Quote by Rebecca O'Donnell: Empathy is walking a mile in someone else's moccasins. Sympathy is wing sorry their feet hurt.Isn’t this post title utterly brilliant? I can say that because I didn’t come up with it; my Sister in Liver Disorders did. I asked her to write my upcoming empathy talk for me, but she’d only provide the title. Thanks for nothing, Sis.

Yes, I’ve been furiously working on my empathy talk, 5-10 minutes about how I define empathy by sharing a health care story. Of course it’s taken me hours to prepare. The attendees will be broader ranging than I’d realized since it’s a joint university/health services conference. What to say, what to say?

I will probably talk about my first Dr. Blood because he is such a good example of a physician who lacked empathy, who did not listen and was not responsive, and who raised my anxiety and fear of dying through his behaviour. Thankfully, I’ve had few caregivers who treated me this way.

One of the things I’ve realized through this talk is that empathic gestures from virtual strangers have stayed with me. (I will be repeating myself to those of you who have committed all blog posts to memory.) Remember the pharmacist at the Cancer Centre I barely knew who stopped to check on me when she noticed I was upset? Salima the Radiator who gave me a hug and told me she loved me following my second zapping? The pharmacy assistant who told me not to be ashamed of needing Ativan for a bone-marrow aspiration? How about the lovely nurse I’d never met before who snuck me home-baked cookies after an unexpectedly long Cancer Centre day when the Cookie Ladies were MIA?

My prolonged ICU stay is one big empathic party, although I remember very little of it because I was so ill. (I trust J.’s recollections of this time because she has a memory like an elephant.) There were the nurses who bathed me in my bed, the physiotherapist who helped my weak body out of bed, and the respiratory therapist who worked with me to remove my ventilator. And there were the doctors who had not met me before and the doctors whose care I was under previously, consulting respectfully with one another to keep me well. Together they monitored me closely and kept me alive. And there was J.’s inclusion in rounds, keeping her abreast of my status and being open to her input.

But one incident at the end of my ICU stay stands out in my mind. I had been in hospital for the better part of two months, missing altogether the end of summer and early fall. The day I was deemed well enough to move to a regular hospital unit, my nurse bundled up me and all my various accoutrements to take me outside. I was too weak to walk, so I was moved into a wheelchair. In addition to my many IVs, I still had a catheter, so even my pee came along for the ride, in a little plastic bag of course. Readying me for the outing took the better part of an hour.

It was a gorgeous day highlighted by this nurse’s deeply compassionate gesture. If her actions don’t typify empathy, I don’t know what does.


4 thoughts on “Empathy: either you get it or you don’t

  1. If this post is a fore-shadow to your talk at the conference, you should have no worries, this is one of your best yet. Best of luck my friend.


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