Learning Empathy The Hard Way

As many of you know, as I have talked about it on countless occasions, when Anika was born, I had to have an emergency C-section.  Three days in the hospital felt like an eternity.  I didn’t like my nurses.  I didn’t get any sleep.  I was an emotional wreck.  And the whole thing really was a nightmare.

I am still recovering emotionally from that experience.  I see my c-section scar everyday when I look in the mirror, and it still hurts.  The other day I was listening to the radio as I drove to work and this lady was describing her own c-section, and I honestly had to fight back tears. I felt like I was right back on that OR table, feeling scared and alone.

My friend had a baby a few weeks ago, and her labor went pretty well.  I was so thankful that she didn’t go through what I did, but at the back of my mind I was a little jealous.  Why was it so easy for her?  What did I do wrong?

I don’t know why my labor was so much more difficult than others.  Sometimes I wonder what I could have done differently that might have prevented my c-section.  I am thankful that I have a healthy baby, but I still wish I had had a better labor experience.  Maybe my postpartum period would have been easier.

But no matter how hard that experience was for me, I am grateful that it happened.  Up until that point, I had never had a real surgery, and I have never stayed in a hospital.  And it is because of that experience that I can really empathize with my patients.

Every day my patients tell me that they couldn’t sleep the night before.  Someone is coming in and out of their room every five minutes.  Some of my patients are starving because their food hasn’t been brought to them. Others are in pain because their pain medication is overdue.  And I really do feel their pain.

The other day I had a patient with COPD.  I went to see her in the morning and I asked her, as I do with all of my patients, if there was anything I could do for her.  She said she was hungry.  She had been placed on “NPO,” which means she wasn’t getting any food.  I knew that there was no reason to keep her NPO, so I went and found my attending and asked him to put an order in for her to be able to eat.  An hour or so later I checked her chart and saw that he had forgotten.  I texted him to remind him, and a few minutes later he put in the order.

It might seem like a stupid little thing, but I knew that he wouldn’t get around to see her until later in the afternoon.  Maybe my persistence only got her a tray of food a few hours earlier, but when you are in the hospital, that makes a world of difference.  I know because I’ve lived it.

I often walk in a patient’s room and find that they are sleeping.  Normally, the physician just wakes them up.  It is understandable as they have many patients to see and they can’t keep coming back and checking to see if the patient is awake.  But I have plenty of time to see my patients.  So most of the time, if I can, I let them sleep.  I can check back a little later, and usually they are awake by then.  Again, it seems like a little thing.  But it isn’t.  It really isn’t.

My experience in a hospital was awful.  Just really awful.  But it has made me a better medical student, and hopefully a better doctor.  It is easy to forget what patient’s go through.  We only see them once a day for a few minutes, but they are in that hospital room all day, sometimes for more than a week.  They’re in pain.  They’re tired.  And they’re sick.  All they have to look forward to is a tray of food and a little sleep.  A delay in their pain medicine by even half an hour could be excruciating.

It is more work to let them sleep and check back later.  Sometimes I know I will get yelled at if I remind the nurse to bring them their pain medication.  But I always ask what I can do for the patient before I leave.  I really have no idea how to get most things for them, but I will definitely try my best.  Even if I have to bother their nurse or their doctor, I really do want to help them in any way that I can. I care for my patients the way I wish I had been cared for. I just hope that the next time I end up in the hospital, some overly zealous medical student will do the same for me.

About emilyehoward

My name is Emily, and I am a Hospitalist in Nebraska. I live with my husband and three beautiful daughters. I hope you enjoy my blog!
This entry was posted in Doctor, Health Care, Medical Student, Medicine, Osteopathy, Physician and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Learning Empathy The Hard Way

  1. doctorloony says:

    Its always the little things that make the big difference 🙂 Good on you!

  2. I didn’t have a C-section, but my childbirth experience was also horrible. No sleep, constant interruptions, late meds, never got a sitz bath, the lactation consultants left much to be desired… so when I get to third year, I plan on doing the same thing with my patients, asking if there is anything I can do before I leave, making sure they get food even if it means extra work for me. My stay in the hospital made me feel like there is a LOT about hospital care that could be better and more efficiently managed. I’m so glad that I’m not the only one that feels this way!

  3. I am so glad you are going to be able to connect to your patients in this way! That is not something every person has, and empathy goes a long way in patient care. I’m not happy you had that horrible experience, but I am so proud of how you are using that experience to grow and become a better physician. You’re amazing!

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