Embracing Civility

The REAL Healthcare Reform!

When Sympathy is Not Enough . . .

All of us at Embracing Civility are honored to have Corey Anne Rotella, CNA, lend her very special voice to our blog as a regular contributor. Corey has worked on the frontlines of long term care since 2008. As she states, “Sometimes, you pick a career and sometimes a career picks you. In my case, the latter is true.”  (You can read more about Corey below.)

Here, Corey shares her thoughts on the importance of empathy in healthcare:

judy garland2Even before becoming a nursing assistant, I considered myself to be a sympathetic person, capable of feeling great sorrow for those in less fortunate circumstances. I would think, “Those poor homeless, sick, or emotionally disturbed people. How very sorry I feel for them!” Such feelings of sympathy tugged at my heart—but not for long. They moved quickly to the back burner, replaced by the routine of my own daily life.

The hard truth is that those fleeting moments of sorrow were really about ME. I had no idea what the people in those situations were going through, emotionally, mentally or physically. I only knew that it was far worse than anything that was happening to me. I realized that, in my sympathy, I was wishing I could pull them up to my level–without having any real understanding of their current struggles.

That’s the trouble with sympathy…
it’s all about the sympathizer.
That’s why the feelings fade.

It’s like those memes you see on Facebook: “Can I get a thousand likes for this child with cancer?” Or, “Repost this picture of an injured animal; otherwise you support animal abuse!”

Messages like these fly through the internet at a dizzying pace, forgotten in days, if not hours, and replaced with something else that MUST BE RE-POSTED. While it is a nice to know that people do care about others, this “sympathy” does nothing to enact lasting change.

Sympathy is a good beginning, but it doesn’t run deeply enough to foster the kind of understanding that we can use to ultimately heal one another. That’s why, in healthcare, sympathy by itself is a useless emotion! In this field, we have to meet people where they are rather than attempt to pull them “up” to where we are. To accomplish this, we need empathy.

Empathy is the ability to walk in another’s shoes. It is a skill, and like any skill, it requires both thought and practice. It takes time to develop but the value of empathy in every walk of life cannot be overstated.

But how can a young, healthy person possibly understand what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s or cancer? How do you walk in the shoes of someone living with mental illness or who is facing a terminal illness?

The most honest answer is that we can’t. Not exactly. But we CAN relate. Every one of us brings our own unique set of experiences to each situation. For example, I don’t know what it’s like to live with Alzheimer’s disease, but I do know what it is like to feel as if I am not valued. I do know what it’s like to feel scared. I do know what it’s like to need help and not know where to turn. Someone living with Alzheimer’s is probably feeling all of those emotions.

I am able to use my own experiences to identify and relate to their troubles. I can apply what helped me through my difficulties to help them with theirs. So, where sympathy is passive (you feel it and move on), empathy is active, creative and helpful.

There is no “one size fits all” solution to everyone’s problem, but the ability to genuinely empathize with others opens the door to solutions.

Empathy is equally important when engaging with co-workers.

One of my favorite parts of working in healthcare is the diversity. We interact with people from a variety of educational, cultural and economic backgrounds—and we all bring something different to the table.

Things run smoothest when we can all relate to and understand each other without prejudging or making assumptions. Unfortunately, prejudging and making assumptions about others is prevalent in the healthcare field, and patients suffer because of it.

Look around at your team. Can you be more helpful and understanding to the new girl who speaks English as a second language? What about the older nurse who is burned out and crabby? Can you imagine the pressure that doctor feels? And someone in billing just lost her husband to cancer.

It’s not enough just to feel sorry for these people. EMPATHY is the only thing that helps. Empathy creates bridges and bonds. It helps people feel safe. It fosters an environment where everyone feels supported and valued.

Whether you work in housekeeping or perform brain surgery, empathy is a skill everyone can improve upon! We must all remember that (regardless of our differences) we have all experienced the same emotions and we are all working towards the same goals. If we can do this, then we can achieve a more productive, healthier, and happier work environment.


Here’s more about Corey Anne Rotella, in her own words:

Corey2“At first, I worked in the housekeeping department at an assisted living facility until I could afford to take the state test. Then I moved up to CNA. I also have my Medication Aid certification, but my heart is on the floor, where I can interact, observe and care for my residents.  My priority is taking time with my residents so that they know they are valued as human beings.  At the end of the day, don’t we all need to know that?

What I love most about my job as a CNA is that every single lesson I learn at work can be applied in all areas of my life.  A lifelong chronicler, I began to fuse my two passions and write about my work experiences, my perceptions and the issues that we all face in the healthcare system–patients and workers alike.

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