An Ounce of Empathy

An Ounce of Empathy

I am a medical student in my third year of studies. For medical students, this is the point at which, after two years of book learning, we rotate through hospital clerkships that give us our first experience of delivering hands-on care to inpatients.

Earlier in the year (it feels like many lifetimes ago), I read that COVID-19 was “just the flu.” We heard from scientific sources and popular media that other maladies were much worse, and that it would be a mistake to overreact to this one. Like many people, I accepted these assurances without too much concern. It all seemed a bit remote to me–the way I imagine issues like food stamps may seem to a politician who’s never needed them.

But now all of that has changed for me.

It’s not just that my hospital clerkships have been changed into online electives. I wish it were only that.

On April 3, a little more than two weeks ago, my grandfather died of COVID-19.

He was the last of my grandparents still living, and we were close. His name was John Diaz. Growing up, I called him “Mydada,” and over the past few years, “JD.”

He was eighty-two, and eccentric. A native New Yorker, and an engineer by trade, he lived in Philadelphia and achieved success in his field, but his heart was in the arts–theater, literature, visual arts, ballet and music. His favorite, I think, was theater; in his spare time, he acted in community-theater productions, and his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer paid tribute to his “resonating stage voice and…dashing physical presence.” But literature and reading were a close second.

I think of how, immediately upon seeing me, he’d always hand me a new book to read, good-naturedly saying, “Here’s your assignment,” so that we could discuss it later over the phone. Sometimes the book was a classic read like Brave New World, but more often it was a secondhand edition of an out-of-print book on Byzantine languages, or an autobiography written by the obscure dictator of a small island nation. He loved learning, continuing to take college classes well into his later years, and I think this was his way of trying to pass it along.

I knew that my grandfather’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease would put him at high risk of complications or death if he were to catch the virus, but I still couldn’t imagine that he might actually be affected. It was truly too scary to think about.

As a medical student, I’ve absorbed many lessons in empathy. Still, it took this deep personal loss to fully bring home to me this pandemic’s effects. Now I understand much more clearly what I saw months ago in the videos from China, which showed doctors dying of this virus and lockdowns choking off normal life. Now I also can feel, in a visceral way, the pain, fear and grief that the people in those videos must have felt.

I know that countless others now share this massively heightened sense of urgency about the virus. But I keep wondering what factors blunted our awareness until now. I’ve concluded that a major deficiency in our country’s early response was a lack of empathy.

It seems to me, looking at the big picture, that the defining response in the US was an inability to put ourselves in the shoes of someone else who lived across the globe.

What if we’d imagined ourselves living the plight of Chinese citizens trapped in Wuhan during the first stages of the pandemic, or of the Italian doctors forced to triage ventilators and deny them to people over a certain age? Might a deeper sense of empathy and urgency actually have led us to put together a response that was more pragmatic, and more effective?

If we had recognized the events in other countries, felt their pain and heeded their warnings, and then responded proactively with testing and other preparations, as did South Korea and Singapore, I believe that we could have achieved immensely better results than what we’re now seeing, with our hospitals and clinicians overwhelmed, and countless people who like me are grieving for lost loved ones.

Amid this crisis, I believe that we as a nation need to choose between two conflicting impulses: to turn inward and blame “outsiders” for our current troubles; or to come together as a member of the global community and to reach out and embrace the experiences of other people in other nations, through empathy and compassion.

For me, the choice seems clear. I keep coming back to Benjamin Franklin’s maxim “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” I believe that an ounce of empathy could have been–and in many states in the country might still be–our best method of prevention.

I can’t help thinking that, if we had exercised that kind of empathy and had prepared better for the pandemic, I might still have my grandfather with me today.

About the author:
William Liakos is a third-year medical student at Donald and Barbara Zucker School of Medicine at Hofstra/Northwell in Hempstead, NY. “I became interested in writing as a way to deal with the difficulties of attending medical school and creating an outlet to express myself. It is one of the ways to maintain sanity during this stressful period of training, made worse by the current pandemic. Although keeping a personal journal is helpful, I’ve found that sharing my thoughts with an audience helps me to find clarity and opens up avenues for enlightening discussion. I hope that I can encourage other people in the medical field to write about their experiences, along with encouraging people to continue to stay the course in the fight against this virus.”

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14 thoughts on “An Ounce of Empathy”

  1. Jennifer Chen

    I’m so sorry you lost your grandfather. I remember how painful it was to lose them from normal causes and can only imagine the pain of losing them to this truly horrifying illness.
    Thank you for your help in this crisis, even though it is remote. Our medical professionals on the front line need all the help we can give them.
    I think there are two parts to our response to this virus. First, our lack of experience with fatal epidemics. Our elders remember the experience of losing friends and family to untreatable or preventable illnesses like polio and measles. Researching my ancestry, it is sobering to realize that several individuals have consecutive death dates. A little research usually turns up an epidemic sweeping through the country.
    And, second, sadly, the shallow, self-centered and short-sighted response of our elected officials in Washington, particularly the Trump administration, who deliberatley down played the seriousness of the illness when they knew otherwise definitely contributed. Re-election is more important to them than governing for the well-being of the people. It is also necessary to put competent professionals in charge of public agencies. Attorneys should not head Health and Human Services and dog-breeders should not be put in charge of pandemic response. I encourage you to go into public service.
    However, that said, you are not alone. I was also less empathetic when I was young because I lacked experience with death. But I was always shocked at how Americans reacted to mass death in other countries as though those people didn’t feel pain and loss like we did. When I was growing up we always had exchange students living with us, so I’ve never seen foreigners or other races as less human. Marrying an immigrant and going to live in his country opened my eyes to the full lives of people in other countries. People truly are the same all over the world. Immersed in another culture, I stopped seeing their physical similarity (“they all look the same,” as so many people say!) and began seeing their individuality. Then I began to see their similarity to people I knew at home (she’s just like my Aunt Mary!).
    I encourage you to continue to share this with others and to take the time to live in other countries. I think your generation of medical professionals, though will have a different perspective than those of the last few decades.
    Stay safe, and take care of yourself.

    1. Sorry to hear about your grandfather, I’m sure you will see him agaim. As God promises in his words at John 5: 28-29

  2. Sorry to hear that you have lost your beautiful grandfather. Thank you for telling us about him. What a great person, truly. And he lives on in you. Thank you for examining the existential nature of our situation here — lack of empathy. Of course. Until we experience something ourselves, little do we know. Your story helps more people know and maybe then feel what needs to be felt and then lived. v

  3. I hope you will become an active voice in the future direction of medicine. I am certain that if you speak up, you will find many others who want and need a voice. Good luck!

  4. Will- beautiful, emotional. Thank you for the message and wake up call for empathy. and of course for the reflections on JD. You are a treasure.

  5. A wonderful tribute to your grandfather.

    And a well said tribute to the benefits of empathy.

    As a LOL I have lived long enough to understand that empathy flows more easily to those people live locally, look like us, speak English, dress like us etc. Your words remind us to look beyond ourselves and imagine what it is like to be others. Not an easy task, but you remind us of what a small world we live in. Thanks for writing

  6. marc wager, md

    that’s a beautifully written essay. your grandfather sounds like a wonderful, well-rounded man and i’m sure he’d be very proud of you. empathy is one of the important traits for physicians to have and share with patients; i hope you don’t lose this important character throughout your training.
    PS i’m so sorry that you lost him to this horrible virus.

  7. My deepest sympathy for your loss. I feel the same as you that if our leaders had really paid attention to what was happening in China and empathized from the start we wouldn’t have been told this was just the flu and would ‘go away’.

  8. Thank you. Well said. An ounce of empathy is especially important in leadership. We have to look to New Zealand to find it.

  9. William, like you, my students who are already nurses and in their final term completing their BSN, are on the front lines of care. We are doing our best as a group of 10 in public health nursing to teach and learn about epidemiology in the midst of this challenge while at the same time caring for others, taking care of our families, and ourselves. Thank you for your honest reflection. I am truly sorry about your loss of your grandfather. I’m sure he is very proud of who you have become and the work you are doing for the greater good.

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