Empathy vs. Sympathy

I saw this video a long time ago and I remember showing it to my roommate and we just sat silently after watching it. I’m glad I was able to find it again. Its quick and easy to understand but she covers some deep things in it that I mull over in my head quite often.

I always get chills when she says “I know what its like down here and you’re not alone.” If only I was just able to convey that to people that I want to help. Its harder than it sounds.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw&w=560&h=315]

My relevant story for today isn’t really any thing compared to the pain and suffering some people go through, but I’m going to tell it anyway because it is what has got me to some realizations about helping people pain- both physically as a future physician, and emotionally with family and friends.

I had a bad sunburn recently. Mostly on my back. It was about two days old and I went running enough to soak my back and my shirt in sweat. It started itching in spots on my way home. Then it started burning. Then I took a warm shower. Then I got out and put some moisturizer on it. Through each of these steps it started burning worse, getting itchy all over. I’m not sure if I was done for from the moment I sweated salty chemicals onto raw skin or if I just kept making it worse, but by this time I was in a fit of excruciating pain and compulsive itching. Rolling on the floor, crying for my mom, rubbing it with my knuckles so that it wouldn’t sting worse from scratching. The only thing that took a little edge off was running the bathtub on cold over my back constantly. My parents were trying to talk me down gently and had to resort to holding back my arms, yelling “CALM DOWN” and watching me twitch and sob and cry.

It was awful. Truly I didn’t think I wanted to live much longer if I had not known it was just a temporary skin irritation. I thought of fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions. I thought of how scary it was to not know how much longer I was going to feel like that. To not know when or if I could sleep or eat or enjoy anything. I was begging to go to the ER to get a sedative.

The video popped in my head

“I know what its like down here and you’re not alone.”

I thought of how anyone was ever going to help me get rid of the pain. I was going through everything I knew to make it just a little better or tolerable so that I could sleep or distract myself from the itching til it went away. My mom was just as scared and helpless as I was. My dad was yelling unhelpful things like “SHH” and “Don’t touch it!”

After we thought of cool water and I was sitting with my back under the faucet, my mom just sat there with me as I calmed down and the burning got manageable. I don’t know if the house catching on fire could have gotten me out of the tub. I was scared to move for fear that the flood of relief would leave my body. My mom just sat there.  And for a bit, I was fine. My pain was not gone but I was comforted by the temporary relief I found and the fact that someone else was there, as if saying

“I don’t even know what to say; I can’t do anything to help you, but I’ll stay here with you and just be together.”

That’s what I hope to bring my patients if nothing else: Relief through connection.

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