To be effective in relieving suffering, doctors must strike a balance between paucity and excess of empathy.
As a young doctor working in the E.R. my capacity for compassion, and that of my colleagues, was often stretched; this was particularly the case when my patients could be said to have brought misfortune on themselves. I saw drug addicts suffering overdose, teenagers retching after self-poisoning, thieves injured through being arrested, all treated more brusquely than other theoretically more blameless patients.
I tried hard to maintain empathy, reflecting that the overdosed, self-poisoned and criminal may no more have brought their problems on themselves than those with skiing or horse-riding injuries or heart palpitations through overwork.
But it’s complicated: I’ve stitched up many slashed wrists cut not through willfulness but as a release from intense anguish; I’ve attended alcoholics for whom alcohol was clearly a substitute for love.
I may not have always succeeded, but I always hoped that my humanity, or my professional duty to provide a high standard of care, would step in when my compassion was running low.
By GAVIN FRANCIS
NY Time Opinion Pages