Empathy (noun): the action of understanding, being aware of, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another (Merriam Webster). Empathize (verb), empathically (adverb), empathic (adjective). Four different versions of the same word all trying to tap into a surprisingly complex human emotion. We are taught to empathize from a very young age, from children’s books detailing what people are feeling to at-length discussions in elementary school. Although people are designed to be around others, I believe that empathy can be taught. It is an ever-flowing feeling that can be absorbed, ignored, and expanded. After working in this hospital for the past ten weeks, I have seen every variation and level of empathy, from the nurse that will go above and beyond his duties to ensure a patient gets home safely to the social worker that curses out patients after they leave the office. I have seen residents roll their eyes when the same patient walks in twice in one day and cab drivers that are willing to take patients fifty blocks home for no pay.
I always thought empathy was a given in the healthcare profession, something that innately went along with the job description. It turns out, it is far more complex than that. The first time we actively discussed empathy in this job was when we were given the scary statistic that the moment you enter your third year of medical school, your empathy starts to decline. This both made sense but also changed the way I watched medical professionals interact with patients. I still saw the diagnosis, the procedures, and the tests, but I was watching how they employed their empathy. Were they going through the motions or actually taking the time to understand the patient? And of course, like any difficult questions, the answer was mixed. On days when there were thirty patients and only two doctors, the team had to move like a machine; there physically was not enough time to sit and hear the complete story of the patient. And there were times when physicians would see and internalize the pain a patient was feeling, trying their hardest to alleviate this suffering through both care and treatment. But the hardest part about all of these interactions is that I began to feel myself experience the same see-sawing of emotions.
I went into the summer as a naïve, hopeful, and optimistic volunteer. I could not see the faults of patients, only how the healthcare system was harming the well-being of those it served. I could not see the never-ending demands of this job or the ways in which healthcare providers worked to maintain some level of sanity. I could see pain, suffering, and a lack of caring, all of which I vowed to alleviate in some capacity. And for some patients, I hope I did just this. Being the wide-eyed volunteer allowed me to sit with patients for hours on end, trying to absorb some of their pain. It gave me the ability to listen to their stories and give them the attention they so rarely received. But it also started to change how I view healthcare.
Although I have only been working at this hospital for two months, I already feel myself burning out. Empathizing is tiring. It forces you to feel things, good and bad, but it also drains you out. I came in with endless enthusiasm, empathy, and patience, but then began to realize that this was not a sustainable lifestyle. If I went into every interaction, exam, and procedure with the same level of empathy as before, I would burn out to no end. But where is the line? Where is the balance between understanding patients and taking care of yourself? How can healthcare providers protect their empathy while maintaining efficiency? Is our healthcare system even set up to answer these questions? These are the things that I have been thinking about from the moment I first saw a physician get angry with a patient, or when no one would explain what was happening to the trauma victim.
Working in a public hospital is by no means an easy feat; rather, it pushes you to the edge of your sanity and caring. Understanding that this is all a balancing an act–an immense game of juggling emotions, feelings, and treatment–has been my biggest takeaway from this entire summer. Knowing that I too will inevitably feel some level of burnout in my time in the healthcare profession is scary yet empowering, because I am ready for what is to come. I am ready to push myself to feel and control when I can no longer do so. I am ready to throw myself into situations with the same level of zest I have done this summer. And most importantly, I am ready to take what I have learned and carry it with me for the rest of my life.