A woman with end-stage multiple sclerosis is brought to the ER by her anxious family. The doctor on duty that night, however, frustrated by the family members instructing him, snaps.
That doctor was Brian Goldman, the speaker at Sunday's Wordsfest event, and although rare for him, scenarios like these have sent this physician on a journey to answer the question: Am I a kind soul?
For an ER physician, the answer may seem unimportant compared to a doctor's primary concern of providing medical care. Goldman, through a conversation at Museum London with Dr. Shannon Arntfield, a clinician-educator in the department of Obstetrics & Gynaecology at Western University, maintains that empathy is imperative in healthcare and in our everyday lives.
On another night, a man misses the passing of his father by a few hours. When he arrived to the hospital, he was greeted by a doctor who, in the man's discomfort, forgets to express his compassion.
That time, Goldman is the anxious family member.
“Up until then, I had no clear understanding of what it was like to be that son or daughter at the patient’s bedside at five o’clock in the morning when they had been up there all night,” says Goldman.
Noticing a diminished sense of kindness in himself and in his colleagues, Goldman wanted to examine what he felt was missing in healthcare — a conviction strengthened by his experience on both sides of the hospital room.
During the talk, Goldman reflected on the slang used by his peers, which he decodes in his earlier book, The Secret Language of Doctors. It’s a language that contains a vocabulary to discuss difficult patients, annoying colleagues, women with personalized birth plans and those with mental health concerns.
“Each of these slang bits had one thing in common,” Goldman explains. “They all lacked empathy for the human being who was there, who was experiencing that.”
What began as a quiet doubt in the mind of this busy doctor, journalist and author, turned into a far-reaching exploration. Through his book, The Power of Kindness, Goldman met with doctors, researchers and “the kindest people he could find” in order to examine what empathy is and how to restore it.
“Empathy is using your imagination to put yourself in the place of someone else and have it inform your actions,” Goldman explains.
“Kindness,” he adds, “is the gesture extended afterwards to help that person.”
This process, however, requires a person lean into the suffering of others — a position which Dr. Arntfield notes makes you vulnerable and in need of kindness yourself. While you can prioritize others for a period of time, you can’t do it forever. She implores Goldman to explain how he deals with “the consequences of empathy.”
Goldman says empathy is a matter of balancing your own needs with the needs of others. He found that the ability to empathize is impaired when a person is under stress. This makes it particularly difficult for doctors, who work in constant fear of making a mistake, to empathize with their patients.
Goldman proposes an alternative: “I realized that I could either keep going through that cycle or I could do what I had not done before, which is to talk about them.”
Early in his career, Goldman was convinced that, with enough effort, he could make himself immune to these mistakes. As a young doctor, he had held this notion- "believed" that medicine was entirely about finding the right diagnosis.
But Goldman has changed his outlook.
“You’re dealing with human beings who are often at their worst when you meet them and they have lives that can be disrupted in a second by illness or injury,” he explains.
Now, Goldman tries his best to communicate to his patients that their care is his priority. He takes his time. He makes eye contact. He sits instead of hovering over their gurney.