Empathy

One busy day in the emergency department (ED) we had a psych patient in a hallway bed. I don’t remember if he was visiting us to stay safe while struggling with suicidal thoughts or if he had come to the ED for some other mental health reason. We try to put patients with mental health complaints in a room as soon as possible, but sometimes the hallway is all we can do for a few hours. This patient fled even though his condition required him to stay in the hospital. He outran hospital security and escaped hospital grounds. Police brought him back to the ED.

I’d seen him sitting on a stretcher in the hall before he fled, staring into space calmly. When the police brought him back, he was slumped forward in a wheelchair with blood running down his shins. He hadn’t had those scrapes before he fled and they caught him. I knew they must have tackled him, but I couldn’t say because I wasn’t there. Later, I’d rinse those scrapes and the ones on his torso, arms, and hands. Nothing too deep, but the iron smell of blood was strong. The patient was NOT angry about the scrapes; he just didn’t want his mother to see him until he was clean again. I couldn’t help thinking that sometimes the price seems steep for safety and medical treatment.

It was a terrible feeling to see someone start in the ED without a scape and then end up with many before their stay was done. I was shaken. I spoke to a coworker about it. I like to discuss things during shift so everything that happened stays at the hospital when I leave. My coworker listened to me carefully and acknowledged the challenging aspects of the situation. It’s always hard to see someone’s mind betray them and, in their worst moments, need restraint from medical staff or police. It’s hard knowing that the violence is part of the route to recovery. My coworker said, “It’s okay to be bothered. If you weren’t, then you’d know it was time to leave this job. When you don’t feel empathy anymore, it’s time to change careers.”  

Empathy is a harsh beast. I believe most of us are able to ignore empathy at least some of the time because it is too much to always feel our emotions and, also, those of someone else. Which has led me to ask several questions about empathy’s nature. How is empathy turned on and off? Is there a time when empathy is out of place? Is it right to push empathy aside to protect oneself? Why are some people more empathetic than others? What does being very empathetic say about a person? Can empathy be taught and untaught?

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Why I Go Back for Each Shift

Not long ago, I walked into an emergency department room (a cube defined by some walls but mostly curtains) to place an IV. An elderly man was on the hospital stretcher. He was there with his son. I began my normal banter—introducing myself, explaining why I was there, and narrating what I was doing as I went. The man might have asked me about my name, about 30%-50% of patients do because it’s unique. He might have asked about my necklace, it’s a wolf and about 25% or so of my patients ask about it.

“I’m going to raise the bed so I don’t have to stoop,” I said. “I need my back for many years to come.”

The patient and his son laughed. “You know what you need, music. Do you listen to music?” the patient asked.

“Not here, it’s not the right place. But, I like to dance, so I do listen to music,” I said.

“My wife liked to dance. She died a year and a half ago,” the patient said.

“I’m sorry to for your loss, sir,” I said.

“We were together 60 years,” the patient said.

“That’s amazing! I don’t think I’ll be with anyone for 60 years at this point. Did you take her dancing?” I said. I maintained a jovial tone because he seemed merry when he mentioned his wife and dancing.

“I did,” the patient said. I looked down to find him crying. I paused and put a hand on his forearm. Giving him a squeeze. I’d recently visited my grandmother. A big part of our visit was discussing how my grandfather, who’d died 2 years prior, was still with us.

“How lucky she was to have you take her dancing! How amazing it must have been to have had so many years together,” I said.

“Sorry, I always cry when I think of her,” the patient said. He half-shrugged and looked away.

“It’s okay. She’s with us still and you’ll see her again, sir,” I said.

“I hope so,” the patient said.

“I know you will,” I said.

The patient and his son nodded. The tears ebbed. I placed the IV. All humans have stories. Sometimes they find space to share them when they visit us in the emergency department.   

Mental Health and the Emergency Department

Checking into the ED for a psychological complaint

When a person comes to the emergency department (ED) with suicidal thoughts or another mental health state that could be a threat to themselves or others (ex. extreme paranoia, homicidal thoughts, mania, etc.) the processes is simple. They change into paper scrubs and their clothes and belongs are locked in a secure closest, returned upon their discharge from the hospital. A hospital staff member sits outside of (or just inside) the person’s ED room conducting constant observation—which includes observing the patient at all times and recording their location and general behavior every 15 minutes. The constant observation is to ensure that the patient does not try to hurt themselves, try to leave, or try to hurt anyone else during their ED stay. Many people who check in for psychological evaluation are not allowed to leave the hospital until their mental condition has been cleared by a psychologist, meaning they are forced to stay in the ED until a doctor says that they will be safe returning to society. Patients suffering from psychological conditions that require more treatment than the ED can provide remain in the ED until a bed in a specialize treatment facility (or in the hospital psychology unit) opens.

One way to define “a national mental health crisis” in the US

When I think of a mental health crisis in the US, I think of all the people stuck in the ED waiting for a psych evaluation and then waiting for a bed in a facility that specializes in psychological treatment. I think of the patients who remain on lockdown in the ED for 100s of hours because if they leave they might knowingly or accidentally hurt themselves or someone else. These patients have no other safe place to wait for an in-patient bed. I think of the people who come to the ED and, even under the watchful eye of our staff, try to kill themselves. I think of the people who end up in restraints, literally tied to a bed, because their condition escalates to the point that they try to escape, attack hospital staff, or harm themselves. To me, the mental health crisis in the US is that we don’t have enough 24-7 services and specialized treatment facilities to keep patients with mental health conditions out of the ED. To me, mental health is just like any other aspect of health. We need to bolster our programs to help prevent acute mental health problems, but we also need adequate mental health treatment programs for those struggling with psychological conditions. The crisis, I think, is a lack of preventative care and readily available treatment, not the existence of diseases.

The ED does welcome mental health patients as we do all patients, but the ED is not equipped to find long-term solutions for any health condition. It is true that the ED can help with acute symptoms, which is all some patients need for a short period of time, but we don’t have a calming environment nor do we have the staff to provide intensive treatment for mental health conditions. We serve as a gatekeeper to specialized treatment and as a place to go when there is nowhere else to go. Just like the ED is not an appropriate place to perform and recover from surgery, it is not the right place for those who need in-depth evaluation or long-term treatment. The ED was designed to keep patients for ideally a few hours or, at most, for part of a day before sending them home or to an in-patient facility. But, what happens with some of our gravely ill psychological patients is that they must stay in the ED for days, even weeks, because there are no openings in specialized facilities.

Conclusion

Using the ED as a long-term home for people suffering from psychological conditions is neither therapeutic for them nor is it a cost-efficient design of the health care system. We need more mental health treatment facilities in the US. We need more programs designed to help those coping with mental health conditions manage their symptoms at home. We need more people going into the psychology fields and social work. In summary, we need to dedicate more resources to mental health in the United States. I think to do that we need to start by acknowledging how many people struggle with mental health and how weak or absent our treatment options currently are for those people. Next, we need to make mental health a budget and policy priority at all levels of government and in private health care systems. Right now, EDs are serving as the catch-all. They are not the solution. While the ED might be the right place for folks in any kind of acute health crisis to go initially, the ED only works if there are specialists and specialized facilities to refer our patients to once we’ve identified the sustained medical care they need. It’s times we prioritize mental health as we have heart health, lung health, and cancer-free health so that no patient is held in the ED because they have no other safe place to go.  

Name the Fear

My stepmother’s friend used to play a game called “Name the Fear and Conquer It” where she identified things that scared her—like bungee jumping— and then did them. My sister has a philosophy about hesitation: If you hesitate because you don’t like something then it’s okay to abort, but if you hesitate because you’re scared you ought to dig for courage and forge onward.

The above thoughts are good summaries of how I, too, approach undertakings that make me nervous. The difference is that I don’t necessarily seek out thrillers like sky diving. I prefer to look around me so I can maximize normal life, avoid falling into mindless routines (I like to break them when they form), and daydream about the next challenge I’m going to tackle. Here’s an example.

Wrestling uncertainty was something I did when I became an EMT. I distinctly remember my tumultuous beginning. I threw myself into a condensed EMT course, having no clinical background, that moved so fast it didn’t even have lectures. It’s one of the only classes, and the only one since sophomore year of undergrad, that made me cry. I didn’t know if I’d survive the class. I didn’t know if I’d pass the licensing exams. I didn’t know if I’d like running on an ambulance. But, I made an educated guess and decided it was worth the gamble.

At first, I felt uncomfortable touching strangers—a necessity when you’re taking a pulse and blood pressure or doing a physical exam. I had to coach myself to be still and not run away when my classmates practiced taking a pulse on me. Understanding how the lungs and heart worked wasn’t intuitive. And, for my mind, memorizing isn’t enough. I must understand. I spent many hours reading and rewriting notes.

I lived through the class. Some tears, but I mostly just buried my nose in my textbook and practiced as much as I could during our practical classes. Despite my efforts, I failed a few stations of the psychomotor exam (physical skills) the first time I took it. I couldn’t concentrate and I messed up things I knew on several stations. (The traditional student in me came through though, and I passed the computer portion of the exam in one shot). I almost quit after failing the psychomotor exam. But, I asked myself, “If you can’t be an EMT how on earth are you ever going to be a doctor?” I practiced more. I gave myself many pep-talks. I passed everything on my second try because I focus on how much I wanted to start working with patients and how certain I was that I was pushing myself in the right direction.

I was so nervous thinking about starting as an EMT that I can’t recall my voyage to my first EMT shift. Despite my panic, though, running on an ambulance started way better than my EMT class had. My crew captain assured me he wouldn’t let me kill anyone. Further, he and the rest of the crew went above and beyond to show me the ropes (well, actually, they showed me the tubes, the gadgets, the bandages, and all the other gear that fills the numerous nooks of an ambulance). Time would show that I enjoyed being on an ambulance. I loved the puzzle of figuring out what was wrong with patients and how to treat their condition. I loved chatting with patients when there was nothing to be done but ride to the hospital. Patients almost always have amazing life stories to tell.

About a year after becoming an EMT, I took another leap. I left my communications job—my undergrad degree was in communications—and dove professionally into health care. I began working as an EMT in the emergency department. Yet, despite the major change, this professional jump wasn’t scary like my EMT class had been. During my first couple of months on the job, I learned a ton of new skills like how to place IVs. While I wasn’t an expert at anything new right away, I knew I’d get there if I focused and practiced. My EMT course proved that.

EMTing pushed the boundaries of my comfort zone. This surprised me because I have a wide comfort zone. After all, I’ve moved and built a life in two completely new countries (once as a student and once as a Peace Corps volunteer) and I’ve moved from the country to the city and the city to the country–which is to say I’m comfortable with change. I think the hands-on work and using assessment to inform treatment of living beings challenged me most when I started learning clinical skills. However, I’m so glad I pushed through the bumpy beginning of my career in health care delivery because medicine is the most fulfilling professional pursuit I’ve undertaken to date.

It’s easy to avoid things we’re bad at because they make us uncomfortable. But, as I told myself many times leading up to round two of the EMT exam, if everything was easy then life would be boring. With that, I leave you with a quote from Amelia Earhart:

“The most difficult thing is the decision to act, the rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life; and the procedure, the process is its own reward.”

Sirens

Life boils down to tidbits like sounds. These days as I walk the sidewalk—scuttling, rambling, or strutting from one place to another—I listen to the sirens. Since running (EMT talk for “working”) on an ambulance, I accidentally developed the ability to distinguish fire truck, police car, and ambulance sirens. Since studying the Doppler effect, I can tell if the sirens are approaching or withdrawing. And since learning to drive an ambulance, I know that a change in siren tune or the blast of an air-horn indicate that the vehicle is at an intersection.

I never cared much for automobiles. I still don’t. I’m not particularly proud or impressed by my siren radar. Nor am I gleeful about that fact that I always notice ambulances, no matter where I am. Before joining a rescue squad, I hardly ever processed sirens or saw ambulances because I lived in a city where there are so many of both they become part of the background. But, since moving to the countryside again and joining the world of emergency medicine, my consciousness has changed. I find myself almost subconsciously tracking the progression of sirens around my large Vermont town. A cop car went first—drugs or a car accident maybe? Just an ambulance—maybe the firetruck is out already and it’s just a medical call? Firetruck and ambulance—maybe cardiac arrest?

I started noticing that I listen to sirens because I was thrown into a different world of sounds: the soundtrack of the emergency department. The emergency department is noisy. There are the heart monitors that beep along with patients’ heart rates and alarm whenever the heart rate or oxygen levels deviate from a norm. There’s the clicking of blood pressure cuffs inflating. There’s the sound of wheels scraping as wheelchairs and beds and carts with supplies skid across the linoleum floor. There’s the clacking of those typing about what medications they gave and assessments they did. There is the thud of quick footsteps and the shuffle of walkers. Patients groan and puke and roll in their beds. And that is only the beginning.

I think all the noise is why, after a long week of work, I seek a few hours where people are scarce. It’s hard to think when there is so much to grab your attention. In the bustle of life, we can forget what the wind and the waves and the trees and the birds sound like. But more than anything else, we forget the sound of silence. I’m not talking about the strained, artificial silence of a library during finals week. When I say “silence,” I mean those moments when no one else is there to drop a pin. I’m talking about the silence that can’t be found in a city and is endangered by our social lives. If nothing else, I think true silence helps us ground ourselves and gauge when life’s racket is distracting us.

When I stroll about my town, I always hear the sirens. When I visit the woods where I grew up, I erase the ringing of so many sounds and soak in the quiet of the trees. I’m grateful that I can experience both.

In Arlington Cemetery

This summer we held a memorial for my grandfather in Arlington Cemetery. His name will be on one of the niches in the columbarium. He was in the Navy and served in the Korean War. The service was short and concise. I think its precision and simplicity was well suited to my grandfather who was a high school and college math professor and liked things to be just right but not conspicuous. The chaplain was empathetic and caring and the soldiers who performed the flag ceremony were on point. As we said our formal goodbyes a trumpet’s song floated in the air above us.

My grandmother used to comment how they enjoyed when I visited because I’d sit all day and laugh as my grandfather told stories. He was a particularly gifted storyteller with the dry wit that ignites my science-loving and logic-focused brain. He told stories of the Navy (usually when he and his comrades were causing trouble), his struggles as a student (he went for a doctorate in math but didn’t finish his thesis because of a disagreement with faculty), or his adventures as a teacher (he had many years of teaching from which to draw).

In EMT lingo, my grandfather had an “extensive cardiac history.” When I called my grandmother after hearing of my grandfather’s passing she told me, “The EMTs who responded to my call were wonderful. You do good work.” She said that even though they couldn’t get him back. His heart had stopped and he had no cat-lives left. When my grandfather died, I’d been volunteering as an EMT for several months.

I’m still an EMT and I also work in an emergency department. An interesting thing about providing emergency medical care is that your mission is to lessen pain and ward off death, but you end up seeing a lot of both. You end up being there when medicine meets it limits and the time of death is pronounced. I sometimes wonder what the EMTs at my grandfather’s death thought. I wonder how they ran their emergency call. What did they do to make my grandmother feel like they’d done the right thing? I hope the families of my patients have the same impression when we determine it’s time to stop CPR.

I used to visit Arlington National Cemetery periodically when I lived in DC. I like cemeteries because I enjoy walking the tombs and imagining the histories of the people they memorialize. Now when I visit Arlington, I won’t have to invent my grandfather’s story because I know it. I’m a product of it. I think of him often, partly because I wish he’d send me some of his math-genius as I continue my medical studies. Mostly, I think of him because he is one of the few people I know who successfully and completely built a life he loved. His only unfinished business is the family he left, especially his wife, but we’ll join him again one day if afterlife exists. Until then, we’ll keep making stories worth telling just as he always encouraged us to do.

Photo Credit: Mary Lou (family friend)

Night Shift

A few months ago, I started working the night shift in an emergency department (ED). Those who have known me awhile were surprised that I decided to work owl hours. When no other forces are at play, I happily get up at 5 a.m., even 4:30. Until I took the ED job, I got up early to study or run before going to work. In college, I worked the opening shift at Starbucks. In high school, I got up to work out or study before my sibling hooligans stirred. I love the stillness of dawn before most people rise. Growing up, I saw deer, foxes, and herons in the gray hours of misty summer mornings. I like the dampness of dew on the grass before it’s evaporated by the sun. I enjoy watching the sun creep over the horizon as I listen to the bird songs crescendo.

I wasn’t particularly surprised I started working the night shift. I’d suspected it’d come to that a few years ago, when I was still in Paraguay. I remember thinking about my return to the US, and my terrible tendency to lay my paper planner out in front of me and plot how to fill the blank spaces. I remember thinking, “Going into healthcare is very dangerous for someone like you. It’s a 24-hour business. Make sure you block out time to sleep or you just might not get enough rest.”

The night shift was the most practical choice when I started my ED job. The wage is higher and it leaves the day for studying or errands. Flipping my sleeping schedule was no light matter, however, especially because I started going to bed an hour before I used to get up. It’s also been a challenge finding a new eating schedule that works for me–I now eat meals at completely different times than before I worked nights.

There’s a strange stillness in the ED when the early hours of the morning approach – 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m.. Even when a very sick person arrives who requires many hands to care for them, the ED is strangely quiet in the morning. Many patients are sleeping or too sleepy to chat with their family members anymore. The patients staying with us until a bed opens in a facility that can help them heal their mental health challenges are usually sleeping or partaking in quiet activities. Sometimes a drunk patient arrives and disrupts the silence, but often they too fall quiet as the morning creeps onward.

Now instead of waking to stillness, I head to bed in its midst. As I drive home from the hospital, the birds are just starting to sing, but the sun’s rays aren’t yet seeping into the sky. The roads are empty save for a few souls coming home from a party or, perhaps, going to work. I arrive at a silent house, those there are sleeping. Not even the dog, when he’s visiting from my parent’s home, greets me when I open the door.

When I first started working nights, I was always tired. But, now that I’m used to it, I’m no more tired than I would be after any long day at work. There’s something about the night shift that keeps you coming back. Perhaps it’s because I like quiet, or perhaps it’s because I like the self-efficiency that’s required when you’re providing quality health care without all the resources of regular business hours that excites me. More likely, it’s that the people who work the dark hours are different than those who work when the majority of society is awake. Many of us won’t work nights forever, but we have some reason to do so now. It’s the fact that we have a reason to be nocturnal, I think, that creates a sense of comradery that’s different from any dayshift vibe I’ve known.

The Do-Good High

Did I tell you I’m an EMT? I’ve been running for about 5 months. Long enough to have learned a thing, maybe two. Let me tell you about the do-good high.

There’s a certain kind of person who becomes an EMT and sticks with it. Hint: It has nothing to do with your age, background, or future.

It boils down to what I call the “do-good high.”

There are EMTs who want patient experience so they can then become nurses and doctors. There are others who like sirens and driving large vehicles with lights. Many EMTs want to give back to the community. Others like the satisfaction of saving lives. Whatever the reason, the thing that makes all EMTs the same is that they get a thrill from doing good.

Whether it’s helping a little old lady after she’s fallen or bringing a person back from the dead through CPR, the folks who stay in emergency medicine are there because they’ve caught the do-good bug. When the alarms go off at 3 a.m., waking you from a dead sleep, and the dispatcher comes over the speaker: “56-year-old male, vomiting and diarrhea…”† I think a normal person would choose to go back to sleep. Not an EMT.

The EMT answers the call. Why? Partly it’s our duty to put on our uniform and leave the station as fast as we can, but there’s also something beyond obligation that makes us go. Even in the grossest of circumstances, like when we pick up that vomiting and pooping man and sit with him during the 30-minute ride to the hospital, we helped turn a bad night for him into a slightly better night.

The feeling you have sitting in the back of an ambulance as the sirens holler and you hustle to your patient is something like that of standing on the start line of a giant race. Your heart goes just a tad bit faster and your mind zips through the possible scenarios that could unfold once you arrive at the scene. Then you reach your patient and a calm descends upon you. There’s a human in distress and what’s ailing them is your puzzle to solve. You might be the one who saves their life. But even if you aren’t called upon to be a hero, you can ease their distress by helping them breathe or reassuring them as you go to the hospital. Seeing your patient’s face relax or their color return after you help elicits an adrenaline rush that starts in your center and spreads out to every corner of your body. It’s a high like that from scoring the winning goal or beating a chess genius at their own game, but it’s better because it lingers. This rush and joy that rapidly overtake you after helping a patient is the “do-good high.” All EMTs get it. It’s what keeps us coming back.

 

†Fictional dispatch that captures the essence of a typical call. HIPAA and other privacy measure prohibit sharing patient information.