Richard Davis: empathy


There are times in your life when you are forced to reflect on weighty issues such as mortality, suffering and the effects of aging. Many health care professionals try to reflect on those issues as they interact with people, but I am beginning to realize that there are many levels of interaction and that some of the wisdom that accrues can only happen at certain times in life.

The reason that I am thinking about all of these things now is that a long-time friend who is in her 50s is dealing with the rapid march to a lifeless state that is brought on by the horrific disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease.

The disease can have a variable course, but in her case it has been rapid and relentless and a day doesn't go by that I don't think of her and her family since her diagnosis a year ago. When you work nearly 40 years as a nurse you think you come to understand something about disease processes and how they affect people. But when it comes close to being personal a new kind of understanding develops.

Of course, that is not a major revelation. Having cancer sensitizes most people and suffering with a chronic and/or disabling disease tends to make a person more understanding of the plight of others in similar circumstances.

But there is more to this rambling reflection than the obvious. Over the past month two people that I worked with in my past job have died. They were profoundly troubled individuals and as hard as I tried to help them turn their lives around, even a little, I was not successful. The best I could do was to show up every week and talk to them and tell them that I was there for them.

Both of these people were in their 50s and one died from a rapidly spreading cancer and the other committed suicide. Their lives were difficult and they suffered in many ways every minute of every day. So, it might be easy to say that their suffering is over and they are now in a better place.

That makes three people I have been thinking a lot about in the past months who have all been in their 50's who have either died or are near to death. What I have been reflecting on is their age more than anything.

I am heading into my late 60s and when a person is heading in that upper age direction they can't help but think about mortality and longevity. My age also gives me the ability to reflect on what it means to die at a young age and that is the point I am trying to make.

I don't think that health care professionals who are in their 30s or 40s can easily understand what death and disability means to someone in their 20s, 30s, 40s or 50s. No matter how hard they try to be empathetic and put themselves in another's place they just don't have the life experience to understand what it means to be 53 and dying.

My argument may sound similar to those who sometimes say to doctors, "How can you understand cancer if you have never had it?" It is both a ridiculous and sensible statement that really has no answer. Of course, health care professionals need not have every disease in order to understand how to treat it and empathy can be cultivated in other ways.

But when it comes to understanding what death and disability means to someone in their 50s I doubt very much that someone younger than that will ever understand the full impact of the tragedy of a life lost or destroyed so early. Feeling the kind of empathy that only age can allow in that situation does not make it easier to deal with, it makes it more difficult. And because of that we become more sensitive and caring people.

Richard Davis is a registered nurse. He writes from Guilford and welcomes comments at The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer


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