Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. I’m not sure if it is a skill or a feeling but we all need it.
To be able to have some ability to understand how our patients feel is invaluable to treat them as individuals. We nurse patients with the same condition day in and day out and it is important not to become blase about their patient journey.
“I realise that my experiences have changed how empathetic I am”
But are we born with a caring disposition or do we acquire it in response to what life throws at us along the way?
When I reflect on my life I realise that my experiences have changed how empathetic I am. Nine years ago I went through a very tough time in my personal life. My husband died, 17 days after being diagnosed with leukaemia, leaving me and our three girls aged seven, two and 17 days. I felt very out of control as the life I was planning to lead was gone. I was facing a new life with everyone telling me what to do and trying help me when I just wanted to try and keep everything together for my children.
This has gone some way to helping me appreciate what it is like to have life-changing injuries that mean the life that you planned has now changed irreparably.
I am not naive enough to think I know what it is like to have a life-changing, long-term condition, but I have grieved so I have an insight into that process.
At my trust we have a zero tolerance policy on verbal and physical abuse, which is essential but I can understand how frustrated patients get – and that is because of the events that have affected my life.
I remember one patient who really struggled to accept her injury. She was a high-flying business women who got very frustrated with the nurses as we could not make her better or speed up her recovery. The nurses found her “difficult” to care for but I spent a lot of time with her, giving her the space and time to talk about her frustrations. I helped her reflect on how terrible her injury was – acknowledging that it was difficult and that we do not have a magic cure.
We all have different life experiences to draw on when caring for our patients and it is important that we value these and share them. It is also essential that we draw on the life experiences of our older colleagues who are nearing retirement, learning from them before they leave the profession and take all their years of knowledge with them.
I do believe there is an element of nature involved in empathy but as I have got older my empathy has grown much deeper and I can use my life experiences positively when caring for patients
“We need to remember that people are all different so will react differently to situations”
I think it can be difficult to comprehend what our patients are feeling if we have not had any relatable experiences, but we have to try otherwise we can come across as uncaring.
We need to remember that people are all different so will react differently to situations – one size doesn’t fit all. So when the “needy” patient in bed three is constantly ringing the buzzer – asking to be repositioned – take a step back and think about why they are on your ward and if you were an inpatient, what would be worrying you?
Sian Rodger is health coaching nurse facilitator at the London Spinal Cord Injury Centre