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Here's to the Physicians Who Show Their Patients Empathy

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I have seen 18 specialists in 12 months, and only two have said, “I’m sorry.” Not “I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” but rather a pure and true “I’m sorry this has happened to you.”

The paucity of those words contrasts a panoply of others. I have learned from well-honed minds about lysosomes, sphingolipids, the arbor vitae. I have collected terms as a child collects seashells, dropping them into a plastic bucket in an effort to grasp the ocean.

I have met with snorkelers and submarine captains who know of the whole to my parts, who have steady hands and a read on the wind, yet something, still, has been missing.


It is not until a provider with whom I’ve met for years greets me with a hug, tears in her eyes, that I finally feel understood. Just as waves smooth jagged edges of sea glass, so, too, do empaths soothe. “Nor do I mean anything miraculous,” as Mary Oliver writes in her poem “Singapore,” but rather a basic display of sentience and compassion. To approach the medical arena with the confidence to command a room while embracing and honoring vulnerability seems a rare and profound art, and vital.

One may analyze and dissect a conch shell, but only upon lending an ear will they discover the ocean’s roar. Interiority is resonant and rich, and the caregiving profession – amidst stem cells, quantification, WATSON technology – can fix, but cannot heal, without a preservation of that which comprises the heart; to hear and listen – practices that converge fact with narrative – add density to intellectual and affective approaches to medicine, while validating the lived experiences of the persons behind the data.

To care in this way need not encroach on matters of mental health or emotional support – realms that transcend the responsibilities of any one provider. Instead, a basal acknowledgement of emotion facilitates efficient and affirmative care, perhaps enhancing – not muddying – the physical and scientific.

This is a note of gratitude to the physicians that remember who I once was, who I want to be – to the physicians who are not afraid to say “This is sad,” or to show, beyond rehearsed lines and printed pamphlets, real and raw sincerity.

I empathize with the pace and demands of the medical profession. I hope, in turn, that more providers can empathize with the pace and demands of their patients’ conditions. To do so curates powerful unity – which is, itself, a healer.

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Originally published: June 2, 2017
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