Dr. Francis Peabody had it right, of course, many years ago, when he taught: “The secret of the care of the patient is caring for the patient.” But how do you come to feel this “caring” emotion? I believe such caring is inborn, a gift from our evolutionary past. Because we are a gregarious species, we have survived for millions of years by “caring” for each other – by having compassion.
The word “compassion” has fascinating origins. The “passion” part comes from a word that means “suffering” (“Passion” comes from the same root as “patient” – both imply the word “suffering.”) The “com” part means “together.” So compassion means we “suffer together.” The official definition of compassion rings true: “Compassion: Distress, together with a desire to alleviate it.”
Compassion, as I experience it, has an element of selfishness to it. My own suffering, my own pain, helps me to understand the pain of my patients. When I found a malignant melanoma on my back, I suddenly understood the fear and anxiety expressed by my cancer patients. When my sister’s son drowned, I immediately appreciated the many patients who had said “There is no pain as great as the loss of a child.” When I realized I had become dependent on an anti-depressant medication, I began to sincerely sympathize with the many, difficult, “substance abuse” patients I had cared for over the years. It is my experience of suffering that lets me see, clearly, the suffering of others.
To feel genuine compassion, I believe you have to be with the patients! Their cries, their words, their facial expressions, their body language just naturally motivate you to alleviate their pain. I believe the legal experts have it exactly wrong. To avoid lawsuits, they claim, document, document, document. They miss the truth that it is not just nurses and doctors and aides who feel compassion, patients also experience that emotion. So many of my patients, over the years, have told me to slow down, relax, and take a little time for myself. The patients care about the hospital workers – if they see them. They’ll forgive you for a mistake. Spending so much time writing notes, away from the bedside, neglecting the needs of the patients, invites lawsuits.
It’s important to be in contact with the patients. The politicians quickest to send men to war are the ones who have never been to war themselves. Had they seen one buddy mortally wounded, crying for his mother and his children, war would seem less desirable. Similarly, it is tragic that those most able to improve patient care, those most in power – hospital administrators, regulatory agencies, insurance executives, pharmaceutical CEOs and, especially politicians – are almost never seen with the patients.
Many years ago, our instructors in nursing school advised us students not to “get involved,” – to remain “emotionally detached,” to maintain a “professional distance” from our patients. My many years of experience caring for the sick have taught me that, once again, my teachers were wrong. Compassion is another word for love. Now, when I care for an old man, I think of him as my father. Young patients now seem like my kids. (Unfortunately, I am now so old I think of the doctors as my grandchildren!) Last week, I attended the wake of the father of one of my patients. At St. Vincent, we should love our patients as we love our families.
At our Catholic hospital, it is difficult not to think of the Passion of Christ when we think of the word compassion. Jesus taught us about compassion: “Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the prisoner, heal the sick,” he commanded. This, I believe, was his greatest teaching. He added, “As you do it to the least of these, you do it to Me.”
Our Catholic history at SVH calls us to “suffer together” with our patients, even as Jesus “suffered together” with us. The wonderful part, understood by all who care for the sick, is that it is a suffering that brings great Joy!
Ken Waugh, RN