Em∙pa∙thy – noun – the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
We are excited to showcase the passion and genius of another great friend of Synapse Care Soultuions this month, Katie Fedor. Katie was a presenter at the 2019 ONE Conference in San Diego, and is a NICN Nurse in Tampa, FL.
Recently, I read an article which discussed the topic of empathy. Researchers in this article discovered that people often avoid feeling empathy, and state that it may be too cognitively challenging, even when presented with opportunities to share in joyful or positive feelings. Interestingly, when the same group was told they scored among the top 5% in this empathy challenge, they felt more comfortable engaging empathetic feelings going forward.
Honestly, I felt weirdly validated reading about this research, because I too have felt that it would be easier sometimes to just come to work and “not feel” things, just for one day.
Do you sometimes wish your assignment was just have a sweet little baby with a family who lives hundreds of miles away, so that I could just care for him in my own way? Sure, I am great at seeing and understanding each baby’s needs, and why he feels the way he does, but bring in his mother who is in crisis and I shut down. When faced with these ever familiar days in the NICU, my fight or flight kicks in and I struggle to find the words to comfort her without blurting out a hurtful cliché.
I think so much of this caring dilemma stemmed from my own anxiety about how to be empathetic. I was always so worried that I was going to say the wrong thing, or come across inappropriate, or trigger a difficult emotion, that I spent all my time worrying about my reaction instead of actually connecting. Through the first decade of my nursing career in the NICU at St. Joseph’s Women’s Hospital, I had some very powerful opportunities to witness my experienced colleagues walk families through difficult times. I learned by watching, and studying their language, both verbal and non-verbal. I learned that I was doing myself a disservice by prioritizing the development of my clinical skills below the development of my emphathy skills.
I also learned that, by avoiding “feeling” the tough stuff with my patients, I was missing out on feeling the really great stuff too. So, I leaned in to the discomfort and I stopped avoiding, and I grew.
What helped me was simplifying the entire concept – Just listen and be present. I don’t have to say anything. I certainly don’t have to deliver an epic speech with the perfect words. I just have to listen, and genuinely care. It’s not about my fears or my feelings, it’s not about me at all.
It’s about their journey. Being truly present helps me to understand why people act and react the way they do, it helps me care for them in a more efficient and effective way, so it’s actually not harder. The initial investment of lending your heart and your ears to their words yields a large reward. It’s education that you can’t get by sitting in a class.
INSIGHT IS A PRIVILEGE
Often, our families grant us more insight into their feelings than they do their own families.
Allow yourself to walk a little bit of their journey with them. Ask them about their birth story, or how they found out they were expecting, or how they came up with their baby’s name. These are important pieces of the puzzle that we do not typically get in report.
- What happened to this family that led up to their journey in the NICU?
- What kind of trauma did they endure before you met them?
Allow yourself to step into their shoes and imagine what it feels like to have an emergency cesarean section. The chaos, the clanking of medical instruments, the tugging and pulling and pain, the smells of cleansers and cautery. Then, being alone in PACU, uncomfortable, nauseous and shaky for two hours, surrounded by mothers cuddling their babies.
If we take a moment and emphathize, maybe then it might just make more sense when a mother has a complete breakdown after missing her child’s first bath. Or when you begin to realize that she won’t remember a single thing you taught her on that first day, but she will remember how you made her feel.
After 14 years in the NICU, here are the four most important things I have learned about empathy:
1. It’s scientific, not just fluff and feelings. We possess “mirror neurons” that elicit similar reactions in our brains when we observe an experience or feeling, as if we were experiencing or feeling it ourselves. Find ways to exercise these neurons. One of my favorite ways to do this is simply to people watch. At the mall or in traffic, why do people act the way they do? If someone cuts you off, is your first reaction anger and retaliation, or to question what might be occurring in their life? There’s a person in that car, maybe it’s a person whose child is sick in intensive care.
2. You cannot avoid uncomfortable feelings without missing out on the joyous ones. If you prioritize clinical skills over emotional intelligence, you might be able to avoid traumatic situations, but you will also miss out on the pure joy that comes with human connection. Those moments are what help us recover from the traumatic ones. They are what renews our purpose of servanthood.
3. Our patients and their families are worthy of our empathy. They deserve nothing less than a clinical team who sees them and their individual journey. We cannot maintain an optimal healing environment without committing to treat the whole person. Our fragile patients are relying on us to send them home with mentally and emotionally strong families that they will need to care for them. If we avoid their feelings, they will too, until they cannot avoid them anymore and a complete mental breakdown ensues. Unfortunately, I think we have all experienced this. I believe it is preventable.
4. In order to see and understand others, you must see and understand yourself.
Take a moment and ask yourself:
- Why did I become a nurse in the first place?
- What holds me back from leaning in to making those emotional connections with my patient’s family?
It helps if we recognize our own past traumas and feelings of insecurity before we open our heart to others. We must also be cognizant of the vicarious trauma that we endure by allowing ourselves to walk these journeys alongside our families. Give yourself and your colleagues time to heal and learn how to practice self-care that rejuvenates your soul and strengthens your purpose.
There is so much hurt and trauma and pain in our place of work, it’s unlike anywhere else. We can’t ignore it, or pretend we don’t see it, or act like it’s okay. We must learn how to deal with it ourselves and as a team. We must take care of each other and speak life into those we work with.
Most likely, your team understands your struggles more than anyone else in your life, so don’t hesitate to get real and be honest with them. Lean on each other. Support each other’s efforts to integrate families into their care.
And, most importantly, help those who are young in their nursing career develop these emotional intelligence skills by leading an excellent example of both clinical competence, and real, raw compassion, empathy, and wholehearted caring.
About the Author
Kathryn Fedor currently works in the NICU at St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital in Tampa, Florida. With the support of her colleagues and leadership, and inspired by The ONE Conference 2018, she designed, and hosted an in house multi-disciplinary conference for neurodevelopmental care. She is a firm believer in the ability of the bedside nurse to affect change and improve outcomes. In 2019, she presented at The ONE Conference, discussing conference development and strategies to engage team members in nueroprotective, family centered developmental care.