Through the death of an infant patient, I was reminded of how integral being compassionate and non-judgmental is to clinical care.
My patient was an eight-month-old infant who just three weeks ago was completely healthy. He presented to the ED with myocarditis. His prognosis was dismal and his newlywed parents decided to stop ECMO. They asked that we call them before we stopped, but they didn’t want to be there when we did.
I immediately judged them. “How could they not be here for him? He’s all alone!” With no regard for what this couple had been through, I, who was fortunate enough to have a perfectly healthy daughter, turned up my nose.
My attending, however, did what I should have—she put herself in this poor couple’s shoes. She suggested that one of us hold the infant—I volunteered. As I gowned up, the judgment left me. The only thing I felt as I walked into the room was purpose. My mission was to be there for this patient and let his parents know that he was loved.
I didn’t save a life that day. I wasn’t part of a phenomenal resuscitation story. And I initially approached this difficult situation with the completely wrong perspective.
Medical schools place a heavy emphasis on diagnosis and treatment, but they often neglect the human component. I was never formally taught how to empathize with others, but here’s what I’ve learned through patient interactions and life experience about empathy:
1. Identify your emotions.
To empathize with our patients and their loved ones, we must first acknowledge our own emotions. We can’t begin to recognize emotions in others without first developing this skill in ourselves.
2. Don’t judge your emotions.
Once you’ve recognized your feelings, be careful not to judge yourself. If you can’t be compassionate with yourself, it will be hard to be compassionate with your patients.
3. Try to identify your patients’ emotions.
Ask them how they’re feeling if you can’t tell.
4. Allow yourself to feel their emotions.
This is the crucial step. Once you’ve identified your patient’s emotion, put yourself in their shoes and imagine feeling it yourself. This will help you keep your judgments in check and act in the best interest of your patient.
5. Ask, “What do you need from me?”
After genuinely empathizing with their emotions, you can now assess their needs.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.