Having More Empathy | Jolyn Taylor, MD, MPH
I woke up early, rounded and then reviewed the other inpatients I was responsible for that weekend. Made my “To Do” list and started checking off boxes. Made a new list, made new boxes, made new checkmarks. This was the start of my first call as a clinical fellow on a busy service. I felt the pressure. I couldn’t miss anything, I had to do a good job. I had warned my family that I would see them in a week when my call ended.
Then my husband called after rounds. He had brought my father to the ER with chest pain. I tucked in the service then strolled over to the ER to see my father. He was entertaining the staff around him with stories and jokes as usual. My husband and I waited for the discharge paperwork and I checked my phone every few seconds for patient updates. Then three ER staff members came and rushed Dad to the other part of the ER, the “sick” part. The ER physician explained that he had an ascending aortic dissection. Dad was scared and confused while I was in shock. A cardiothoracic surgeon was driving in and he would take Dad to surgery soon. He went to surgery and we all waited. Finally, the surgeon came out and we knew Dad had survived the surgery. He went to the ICU and we all took a breath.
The next two weeks in the hospital were fraught with complications and setbacks. There was pneumonia, a small stroke, atrial fibrillation, wound seroma and repeated aspiration from a nerve injury. We finally brought him home and did all we could to help him recover, but over the next six months it appeared that we would lose him. I watched as he slipped away. Then, after months of decline, my family had the fortune that most of our patients do not: he got better. It has been a year and a half and he has made a remarkable recovery.
I tell my story because it taught me a lot about wellness. In our SGO Fellows Wellness Curriculum we discussed many topics, but two especially resonated because of this experience. The first was to make time for what matters. As trainees, we have limited control over our schedule, but I learned that even so, I could make time in my life for what I decided was most important. We decided what was important to do as a family and prioritized things that brought us joy and meaning. I didn’t believe it was possible before because there were so many check boxes to go through and so much to worry about, but I learned I had had the wrong perspective on “possible.”
The other topic that resonated was how empathy can combat burnout. During this time, when my father was getting worse, I understood the anxious looks from families, the complaints and the questions in new ways. I remembered what it was like to be on the other side of patient care. This understanding and empathy brought deeper meaning and satisfaction to my work and has helped to carry me through when I’m tired after a long week.
It is important that we are discussing burnout. Seeing others who truly believe in wellness and want to make a difference is powerful. I knew I had people around me who cared during the worst days of my father’s illness. Hopefully, working together and supporting each other, we can create a true culture of wellness in medicine.
Jolyn Taylor, MD, MPH, is a Gynecologic Oncology Fellow at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, TX.