Using Empathy To Become A Trusted Caregiver

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Janice loved her job as the lead Physical Therapist at Joy’s Rehab Facility.  She had worked there for several years now and always enjoyed the role of training new staff.

One morning she asked her team to meet before the therapy room filled with patients.  “I am struggling with Mr. Eugene,” she started, “and I am asking all of you to help brainstorm how to reach him.”

The team mumbled in agreement until Maddie, the newest team member spoke up, “I have tried working with Mr. Eugene too and he is very hard on the outside.  It was very difficult for him to open up to me when I introduced some strengthening exercises in his room last week.  It wasn’t until I broke down crying about a personal phone call I received, that he softened up.”

“Really?” questioned Janice, “If you don’t mind my asking, what was the call about?”

Maddie told the team that her grandmother had called her while she was working with Mr. Eugene and was very upset because a she felt abandoned at her nursing home. She was new to the nursing community and felt isolated from family, having none of her close friends nearby.

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Maddie listened to her grandmother, sharing a story of when she herself had felt isolated, alone and scared too.  She then promised to visit her that night and bring cannoli's to share (her grandmother's favorite).  After the phone call, she cried tears of understanding.

“So, what does that have to do with Mr. Eugene?” a team member asked.  Janice smiled as she realized the importance of Maddie's vulnerability.

“Actually,” Janice began, “Maddie’s personal share with Mr. Eugene may have been a breakthrough.”

“I think perhaps it is 3 fold.  First, Mr. Eugene heard Maddie share a personal story that her grandmother could relate to.  She didn’t make her grandmother feel alone in her feelings, but rather normal and understood. Secondly, Mr. Eugene saw Maddie cry.  She did not hide her sadness.  He witnessed her get into the yucky mess that her grandmother was feeling and not dismiss it.  Finally I think Mr. Eugene benefited from hearing Maddie’s story, helping him realize that he is not alone in his feelings of abandonment and isolation. She built trust and connection

Maddie agreed.  She added that she had talked to Mr. Eugene about the hardest time in her life when her parents moved to a different state when she was 15.  She divulged how she left everything she knew including friends, school, clubs and the neighborhood she grew up in.  “It was a really rough time for me.  I felt alone, scared in a new school with no friends, no idea where I was and very little support.  I cried often and locked myself away from everyone.  It took time, but eventually I did feel accepted.  I will never forget that time.  Other people's feelings of isolation often make me think of this memory.  It helps me connect with them in a way where we share a similar emotion.”  

A team member piped in “So are you saying that we have to share our own sad stories to reach a difficult patient?  That doesn’t make much sense. We are taught to keep healthy boundaries with our patients.”

Janice replied with enthusiasm, “This is true, we do need to keep our professional parameters, however if we are too distant we appear above the patients we are caring for. That can lead to a degree of distrust and an inability to connect.”

“What Maddie did was use the pillars of empathy to reach her grandmother and, unknowingly, reach Mr. Eugene too.  I know that he is a far distance from family and has few visitors.  It is very likely that he feels isolated, alone, scared with little support.  Other than Maddie, has anyone else addressed these issues with him?”

The rest of the team shook their heads in agreement.

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Janice surveyed the group and decided on a challenge for the team.  She played a short video about empathy and connection.  She then asked each therapist to talk to their patients today and ask how they were feeling emotionally.  Then they were to find a time in their lives when they too had experienced that emotion and share it with their patient to create a new level of trust and connection.

“I want to reconvene at the end of the day,” said Janice, “and talk about the connection you made with your patients.  I think that you will find great satisfaction, as this process will make you a more trusted member of their health care team.”     


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