A Lesson in Empathy


A few weeks ago, I volunteered at a community health fair. The event served uninsured and underinsured residents by providing free health screenings. In addition to blood pressure, weight, and BMI assessments, volunteers also performed point-of-care blood glucose and cholesterol tests for free. There were acupuncture assessments, hearing and vision screenings, fitness demonstrations, and medical consultations.

Over 1,000 people attended and received services they otherwise would not have. There were probably more than 100 volunteers. My husband and I were two of them. We volunteered our Saturday to be there – a very minor sacrifice for two fortunate individuals with steady jobs and health coverage.

The health fair was organized by the director of a local free clinic, who delegated tasks as volunteers showed up that morning. My husband and I offered to go wherever we could assist and do whatever was needed. Our first assignment was to “guard” the entrance to the auditorium while booths were still being set up. 

As many free events go, there was some disorganization. A line started to form at our entrance “gate” (a doorway between the building’s foyer and the auditorium). Suddenly, an attendee came running over to us. She announced that she had been waiting alone at a different location, after being directed there by other volunteers. Unfortunately, those volunteers must have pointed her to the wrong doorway. “I guess I got here early for nothing,” the woman said.

We tried to relay understanding, apologized, and assured the woman that the other participants probably wouldn’t mind if she jumped up front. But the experience was already a negative one for her. The women muttered some statements of discontent, including that she “thought such a large event would be better organized”.

A couple knee-jerk responses came to mind, such as: This is a free event; what do you expect? – and – We’re not getting paid to run this. Of course, I never would have voiced these thoughts out loud. But was it okay to think them? Was I practicing even an ounce of empathy – a concept so central to the art of nursing? I wasn’t.

Empathy is the experience of understanding and sharing another’s feelings. We don’t have to know exactly what the other person is going through. In fact, many times we can’t. But we can connect to a feeling or emotion. Have I ever felt frustrated? Let down? Disappointed? Sure, I have.

And that’s how the woman at the health fair seemed to be feeling. Perhaps this event was her only opportunity to find out if she had diabetes, or a rare chance to speak to a licensed healthcare provider about a concern. Maybe she had to miss work time (and pay) to attend this once-yearly event. What if being first in line was not a preference, but a necessity – in order to get back to her job? 

The point is: we never know what someone else is going through. But when we try to understand how the person is feeling in the moment, we’re practicing empathy. I’ve learned about empathy throughout my nursing education; I’ve taught the concept to my students. It remains a hard skill to practice, fully and consistently.

Because we’re human and not totally proficient at putting ourselves “in someone else’s shoes”, it’s important to reflect on past opportunities to show empathy. Next time I encounter a situation like the one at the health fair, I’ll try my best to focus on the other’s feelings and avoid knee-jerk judgement.

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