Empathy is crucial in medicine

It does concern me when I see a nurse brushing off a patient or ignoring little signs of distress. It doesn’t happen often, but compassion fatigue can creep in at the end of a long shift.

Compassion and empathy are one of the most important aspects of any job in medicine. Certainly, a nurse who can’t understand the feelings of others is lacking one of the key skills that make her or him such a vital part of the medical community. As a nurse working in a paediatric ward in a large London teaching hospital, I had to be the one to hold a parent’s hand when their child was in a critical condition and might not survive the night. I had to understand when a child was fed up to the back teeth of yet another treatment round and was ‘acting up’. I had to bring all my knowledge and experience, as well as my empathy into play to ensure that everyone understood the situation and felt supported.

Of course, not everyone is naturally tuned into other people’s feelings. That is why nurses are taught during their training how to listen and how to read body language. If it doesn’t come easily, it can be embued – up to a point. I know that some nurses struggle to maintain a bond with their patients due to exhaustion or plain boredom and everyone has their limit. But in a situation where a nurse can no longer really care about others, he or she should step away and maybe reconsider what they really want to do. Nursing may not be right for them.

And although empathy is important, so is balance. It is crucial that a nurse can step away from an emotional situation and carry on without taking on the burden of loss and grief. This can be very hard though. When I worked in A&E, it was unusual if we saw a patient for longer than four hours so it was relatively easy to move on. But when I worked on a paediatric cancer ward, I often worked with children and their parents for many weeks and months. I would get to know them extremely well and develop a real bond. If the treatment was a success, it was a joy, but when the diagnosis was terminal, I had to be careful not to wear my heart on my sleeve.

I found it best to be honest and sincere, and remember that patients are going through their own personal crisis. Nurses must understand that people who are afraid may not always behave impeccably and may have a range of coping mechanisms. There is no place for judgements about morality or preconceived notions about blame when someone is suffering, whether that be from excessive alcohol consumption or a rare inherited disorder. Patients sense acceptance and genuine compassion and respond accordingly, making a nurse’s life a lot easier and more rewarding.

Lara Speir

Lara Speir is an emergency paediatric staff nurse who has worked in A&E.
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