True empathy

When I saw her name on my schedule, I knew it would be one of my visits that would run over the allotted time. Sometimes fifteen minutes isn’t enough to do everything- get a full history, address any problems, order tests, do an exam and just get caught up on her life. We had spoken on the phone not long after I returned to work. She was the first person I told about Mabel without being asked.

“You know, I had a baby with Down Syndrome too,” I had told her over the phone. At the time I had given her a brief version of what happened because she was one of those people who are kind down to her bones and because she too had a child with Down Syndrome. Our circumstances were different- one with a prenatal diagnosis, one with a birth diagnosis, one whose baby lived, one whose baby died. On this day, I got to see her in person.

Before starting the exam, we chatted and she showed me a photo of her son. I’m often shown photos of people’s kids and those moments are so bitter for me. What they don’t realize they are doing is saying “look what I have and you don’t!” It feels shoved in my face. But I try to smile and say an encouraging word before quickly changing the subject.

But with this patient it was different. I took the phone from her and really looked at this child, with my old eyes- the ones that found something cute in every baby (and with this one it was easy). She mentioned she was doing our local buddy walk and I said excitedly that I’d be there too.

“And how are you doing?” she asked- really wanting to know.

“I’m trying. It’s hard,” I answered honestly and then reached into my pocket for my phone. “Do you want to see some photos?”

She oohed and ahhed over the photos in the most perfect way, comment on her hair, asking more details about what happened. “Were you with her when she died?”

“Yes, she died in my arms. I was grateful for that.”

It amazes how such simple interactions can just warm me from within. “Where you with her when she died?” What a question. It meant she was trying to picture it- that’s true empathy. She was familiar with the NICU as many parents of children with Down Syndrome are. She knew the meaning of getting heart wrenching news at birth. She knew what it was like to be given the unexpected.

Has there been someone in your life who has shown true empathy?  What would true empathy look like to you?