A Patient’s Perspective: Empathy – I Want It

Empathy is a good thing.

We all know it, we all want it.

And from reading an article in BioMedCentral, the benefits are stunning. Empathy is shown to “reduce patient pain, lower patient anxiety, increase patient satisfaction, increase medication adherence” according to this meta-analysis of patient surveys.

From this patient’s perspective, expressions of empathy are few and far between and I have to ask why.

It got me thinking about a recent experience.

Before I could be released after my latest surgery, I had to prove all the plumbing still worked, so my recovery nurse came along to get me moving. She kept encouraging me with words and her firm, yet gentle, hands. However, telling me I likely had to go when I wasn’t even sure I could, made me worry a little. What did she know I didn’t?

With assistance I was able to sit up. I was understandably dizzy and more than a little nauseous. I say that and yet I remember how surprised I was at the time. Later, when I was being discharged my nurse explained it was because my blood pressure kept dropping dramatically. At the time, I just wondered why the room kept going dark.

I made it to a sitting position at last. We carefully began to swing my legs to the edge of the bed. It looked a long way down. I couldn’t imagine doing it alone. Good news, my nurse was right there helping me as with agonizingly slow and deliberate movements I lowered myself to the floor.

That’s when my nurse tilted her head and told me I was short … just like her.

I probably would have been more amused if I wasn’t so concerned that I couldn’t feel my feet or really anything below my waist.

I realize she was merely following protocol. In fact, I trusted that she was so I did what she asked of me even if I only heard half of what she was saying … I think I understood less than half of what she was saying.

Still, we made it to the bathroom and she helped me sit down. That’s when she looked me over again and pronounced my feet didn’t touch the floor. It was a true statement but it’s what she meant by it. You see, it’s awkward and uncomfortable with your feet dangling in the air. It wasn’t just my feet I couldn’t feel if you get what I mean …

Here’s the thing: The moment my nurse found something in common with me that had nothing to do with me as a patient and everything to do with me as a person, it changed our interaction. She was able to appreciate and anticipate both challenges and concerns on an individual level. When she brought what we had in common to me as her patient, she was not only more empathetic to my situation, she gave me the care I felt I really needed at that time.

Do I believe she knew what she was doing? Of course.

Do I believe she would provide all her patients with equal care and attention? Of course.

At the same time, when my nurse took the protocol she was trained to use and realized a pragmatic way in which to apply it to me, the individual patient at that time and place, it changed everything for me. Because I believed she really understood my perspective I felt safer, more cared for, and had an easier time in my recovery … all because she saw the world a little like I did.

Why did I feel this way?

Because when she saw my feet dangling in the air she realized how much more difficult it would be to make that plumbing work. And she knew very well if I couldn’t use it, I couldn’t go home … something we were both motivated to make happen.

My level of trust in her care for me increased dramatically when she removed the commode so my feet rested on the cold floor. Well, to be honest, she said it was cold but I still couldn’t really tell. But I took her word for it.

It also made me realize how many points we did not connect on.

We often hear words like “we are all patients” or “I understand how you feel as a patient because my parent went through the same” or “I have read all about this and went to school to study it”.

I am a chronic disease patient and I am telling you … no … this is not something you can get second hand. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t let you in on this perspective. I think the starting point is finding the things we do have in common … like my recovery nurse did.

Why is this so important?

Again, I can answer that quite simply: If your words aren’t believed, aren’t trusted, are regarded as “merely words”, we aren’t really connecting. Without this connection, without genuine communication, we can hardly have a meaningful exchange. All of which leads to, at least a perception of, less quality care and quality of life.

Here’s the thing: It’s all about trust. As a patient, I am asked to trust a lot. My care team expects me to trust they are doing what they can, that when they do miss something (because it happens), they will correct it and let me know as soon as possible. I am expected to trust the drugs, the surgeries, the treatments are the best for me in my situation … all without guarantee they really are the best for me.

With all this trust happening on my side of the exchange, it is always that much more pleasant when I feel there is genuine understanding of who I am as a patient on the part of my care team. That rarely comes from words. That comes from finding genuine commonality. Proof … if you will … that there is shared experience and understanding, and yes, even respect. Who wouldn’t want that?

Even with the connection my nurse made with me there were still so many ways in which she didn’t see my perspective. From the first I couldn’t understand why things kept going dark. I was passing out but didn’t know why … was this normal, should I be concerned? I couldn’t feel my feet, or well anything much waist down … how was I supposed to respond when she said I should be requiring the bathroom? Far as I was concerned, I didn’t think I would ever again.

You say you understand my perspective?

You say you are empathetic?

Prove it.