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Friday, April 28, 2017

Writing About Empathy

the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

All the political intrigue and infighting going on about healthcare in America reminded me of the last time I had health insurance* (when I was in the hospital in ’14).

I volunteered to go to the emergency room when I realized something was terribly wrong. Doctors came to my side for hours trying to figure out what the problem was. It was well past midnight when they transferred me to a bed, and it took over a week to figure out what the problem was.

Since it was a teaching hospital, doctors came by with interns doing rounds. They do ask for your cooperation. You are not required to participate. I am student-friendly and allowed interns to examine me, ask questions, and make homework of me.

I was very popular. There were consults with a number of department heads, each one trying to determine the nature of my pain. Everybody got to prod, prick or send me into cold rooms with loud machines. I was treated well, but not everybody showed empathy. Empathy requires understanding and action; it is more than words, there must be intent to soothe the soul of its pains as well.

The head of oncology was a lovely man, tall and imposing, but also very polite and transparent. After our first visit and a round of tests, he did a personal consult to inform me that the problem was not cancerous in nature, and asked if I’d allow him to return with his students on rounds. I agreed.
Mom happened to be visiting when he rolled around with his interns. She was sitting back, catching her breath after a hot and humid commute on a slow bus. I was laying back in the Wonder Woman socks Barbara sent me, playing WWF with La Belle Dame de Baton Rouge, while he lectured the interns on what they could expect on a worst-case scenario (with varying degrees of horrific details).

Somehow, Mom missed a word or two of the intro; and, when I looked up, she’d blanched to the point I think she was ready to drop (whether faint or to a stroke was unclear). It quickly dawned on me what was happening.
“No! No, Mom!!! That’s just for them, not about me,” I tried to explain but words got twisted in the delivery.
The doctor stopped, and both he and a dozen students turned to watch my mother’s eyes watering, her skin pallid, her breath clearly gone. 
{Houston, we have a problem: complete meltdown in three, two, one…}
“Mom?” She couldn’t hear me. Her eyes were fixed inward in the horror of the words she had just heard—
She just heard a man tell a bunch of strangers her baby girl was dying!
A good number of the interns were still taking notes or trying to digest the gist of their mini-lecture on differential diagnoses. The doctor, on the other hand, immediately realized the problem, stepped forward toward Mom, and shielded her from the students’ view.
“I apologize,” he said. “The worst case scenario I just mentioned is for academic purposes only, not at all the case with your daughter. The problem with her pain is not an oncology problem.”
He dismissed the students and asked that they wait outside. He hugged Mom and reassured her. His voice was soft, the delivery self-assured and authoritative…

“We have a few very capable teams on the case,” he told her. “She is a strong young woman and I’ve no doubt you’ll have a diagnosis soon.” He spoke to her for a few minutes, and offered to answer any of her questions. Despite not having concrete answers, he gave her enough of a foundation for hope by simply addressing her personally.
He stopped short of promising her they’d fix me, but his moral support implied it. That was all she needed. Slowly her color returned to her lovely face—though she was tired and worried still.

Empathy and excellent bedside manner can be an elixir in itself. Even if applied to someone other than the patient herself.

In writing that scene, with no other details, I wonder if the empathy is palpable on its own. Perhaps it was a combination of the doctor’s no bull approach coupled with an Old World genteel civility. Maybe that was all that it took to perceive empathy. Or perhaps we desperately wanted to see one of these authority figures to possess empathy.

Showing empathy can be tricky in writing—you always run the danger of making it all exposition. And while I don’t necessarily condone profiling, I bet those who literally felt the empathy knew how unusual the main character here is from the archetype of an institutional doctor who is also an administrator (I wrote the anti “House”). 

*For the record, I have health insurance, although I did spend about two years without, and am likely to lose it again soon enough, but that's another story and there is no empathy involved.

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