“The world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it.” – Albert Einstein
Growing up, I’d say I had an average amount of empathy. I was a sensitive child, but as far as empathy, my ability to relate to and feel the emotions of others, was pretty average. It was not until I went into medicine, that this ability to sense other’s emotions really blossomed. I believe this happened for two reasons. First, as I stepped into the role of a medical student, then resident, then attending physician, my patients opened up their lives to me. Their deepest insecurities, concerns and triumphs were shared with me during our times together. Their trust in me has touched and opened my heart in ways I never could have imagined. It truly is a privilege to be part of another human’s life with so much trust and faith. The second reason is by observing my mentors. During my 8 years of training (10 if you include pre-med where I did a lot of observation!), I observed, precepted with, learned from, and assisted hundreds of attending physicians. I have to say honestly that each and everyone one of them had the biggest heart for their patients. I have never met a group of humans that has cared so much for others, often in sacrifice of their own needs and comfort. I have seen surgeons perform laborious surgeries going into the double digit hours, hospitalists go for days at a time without leaving the hospital or eating a proper meal, primary care physicians sobbing when one of their long time patients passes, pediatricians literally giving the jackets off their backs or the ties around their necks to their young patients. Sure, there are a few bad eggs out there, there will be in any group of people. But I can count out only on one hand the physicians that I did not have the utmost respect for… and in those instances, they were usually just having a rough day. It is from these mentors that I have learned that understanding and feeling someone else’s circumstances and emotions is what we are built for. And the more empathy that you have, the more connected as a human you will be…. And the more complete life you will live.
My first year as an attending has been an interesting one. Not just complicated by the first pandemic of a century, but also in starting a new job in a new hospital with way more responsibility, and staring down the mountain of debt that I have accumulated that is now coming due. And through the challenges and stresses, my colleagues have shown nothing but the highest degree of support and empathy, for myself and the patients we serve. I have never once been let down by colleagues when calling for an sub-specialty consult, requesting a surgery or procedure for my patients, or just for advice. I am so lucky to be in this profession with these people. I learn from them day after day, not only how to be in better service of our patients, but also how to be a better human, a more giving, selfless and compassionate person. As I’ve lived my life and observed human interactions, I have seen how petty and selfish we can be as humans. It’s innate, and we must learn to forgive. But, day after day, I see my colleagues working in the best interest of others, without pause – it has become instinctual… or maybe it always was. They think long and hard (so much longer than most) about other’s perspectives. They feel sorry when they are unable to help more based on circumstantial constrictions out of their control. Truly sorry. And often truly heartbroken.
I have been continually impressed with my colleagues and how they have risen to this occasion – volunteering for COVID specific units and traveling to hospitals in NYC, Seattle and New Orleans where the pandemic is worst to volunteer. In fact, I applied to volunteer in NYC during a 5 day period that I had off from the hospital… I waited and waited, only to find out they had enough volunteers already. I was both disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to contribute, but so proud that so many of my colleagues stood forward and rose to the occasion. Who else does this? Sacrifices themselves and purposely puts themselves in harms danger, without seeking compensation or recognition, to help their fellow human being? I know so few, or at least thought I did. But indeed there are hundreds, if not thousands, of health care workers that are doing just that. That is the medical profession. This is why we did this. Sacrificed a decade of income, comfortable lives, retirement savings, only to work tirelessly in the trenches with inhumane hours, little to no sleep, crippling debt accumulation, just to ensure the health of others. It is incredible, and I am humbled day after day by their example. It makes me want to be a better doctor, and it has undeniably inspired me to be a better and more empathetic human, volunteer, and citizen of the world. It is humanity embodied. And I am so grateful to be a part of this group, I am grateful to learn from their intelligence, hard work and empathy daily. It, undoubtedly, has made me a better doctor, friend, and human. I am so grateful to call physicians my colleagues. Those that are able to see the dangers in life, and do something about it.