Published in


The Child Who Taught Me Empathy

Experiences teach a physician to connect on a deeper level

phot by Irina Murza of Unsplash

Her birth was normal, though approached with trepidation, as she was already known to have a serious genetic abnormality. A tiny bundle with a high pitched cry came into the world; a life not expected to last more than six weeks.

She was loved greatly by her family. Though she was blind, she responded to her mother’s touch and appeared to hear her voice. Feeding was always a struggle, and nearing the end of her fourth week, she began to cough and developed a rattly chest. Antibiotics were prescribed but with no great expectation of success.

The phone rang during the night. She seemed worse. Would I visit? Without hesitation, I said yes.

I sat with the mother and child in their cozy living room. After some time, the baby’s breathing became irregular, and it was clear to me that she would be unlikely to survive the night.

I called to inform the pediatrician of her condition. He wanted her to be admitted immediately. Her mother and I said no, though with the caveat that if I felt she needed medical intervention, we would take her to the hospital straight away. She did not appear to be suffering any distress.

We both thought it was the right thing to do to keep her at home, cradled in her mother’s arms.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

We sat quietly with her, saying very little, listening to her breathing as it became shallower until finally, she took her last breath.

I said to her mother, “I am sorry.”

Sorry that there had been nothing I or any other medical colleagues could have done to prevent her child’s death.

Sorry that she had to endure the devastating knowledge that her child would never participate in a normal childhood.

Sorry that the shadow of her death’s inevitability would color every day of the baby’s life.

She told me that the child had been a blessing in her life, and the love that she had experienced for this baby was a profound gift.

The extraordinary bond between a mother and child can overcome even the darkest of circumstances and be humbling to observe.

I learned something of human nature that night, which stayed with me throughout my career. I developed a deeper understanding of love.

I learned the skill of pausing and briefly stepping away from clinical algorithms to connect on a deeper level with my patients. My career was enriched beyond measure as a result.

The ability to empathize cannot be taught in a lecture theatre or learned from text-books. It comes from experiences such as this.

Take those moments into your heart.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store