The Practice of Empathy

Jouhaina Chebbani Bazzi, PA
Wayne State University, Detroit, MI


The physician walked into the room with a bewildered look on his face. “Your father has a…an abnormal looking area in his neck bones…we can’t tell exactly what it is. I’m going to refer him to a neurologist that specializes in diseases of the spine. He should see him as soon as possible, so we set up an appointment for tomorrow morning. Will that work for you?” As a hundred thoughts raced in my mind all I could say was “um, yeah sure.”

I was in the second year of my Physician Assistant program when my father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. It turned out his neck pain wasn’t just arthritis or a strained muscle as his doctor had initially thought. He had a cancer of the bone marrow that would end up taking his life in just a little over one year. During this time I JCB-WSU-PA-PIC2 -01accompanied my dad to every appointment, diagnostic test, surgery, and ER visit. I knew every one of his 15 medications by heart. I had all of his doctor’s names and contact information, a summary of each appointment and important diagnostic test results written in my trusty notebook. My father trusted me with every aspect of his healthcare and was so proud to tell all of his physicians and nurses that his daughter was a PA. I graduated from my PA program in May 2012, and my father passed away the following year in June 2013.

As my father’s illness began to emerge we were introduced to the world of doctor’s appointments and hospitalizations. Most of my father’s healthcare providers were very kind and compassionate. I can recall one physician in particular who was always very busy as was evident by the waiting room filled with patients, but when in the exam room he made us feel as though my father was the only patient he had on the schedule. On the rare occasion when we came across a healthcare provider with poor bedside manner, I vowed to never be that way. I realized that patients and their family members are highly vulnerable and are counting on the guidance and help of their healthcare team to make it through each day. One simple smile or word of encouragement can make a world of difference.

I have always enjoyed helping people. It was, after all, the reason I chose to become a PA. Sympathy came naturally to me, however, by the time I became a healthcare provider I had a better understanding of what it’s like to walk in my patient’s shoes. I also understood first-hand what their family members were going through. I had experienced true heartache and personal sorrow, and in doing so slowly traded in sympathy for empathy.

As novelist Mohsin Hamid put it “empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself.” I have been a PA for 5 years now and every elderly male patient still reminds me of my father. Whenever I see a patient accompanied by their child who has their IMG_1803-SMILE-01“trusty notebook” handy, I say a prayer in my heart for my father. It is a reminder that every patient is someone’s parent, child, grandparent or best friend. My experiences on the “other side” have been etched in my heart and in my mind forever, and have molded me into the healthcare provider I am today.

I urge anyone seeking a career as a healthcare provider to consider their patient’s perspective. Be ready to listen before you speak, and take the time to answer questions and ease concerns. Keep in mind that sometimes your body language speaks louder than your words. Most importantly, do not enter the room with preconceived notions or a rigid plan of action. Instead, enter the room ready to treat your patient as you would your own family, with kindness, compassion and empathy.

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