Sometimes My Empathy Reaches Its Limit

I had a doozy of a shift last night.  Medically speaking, it wasn’t all that difficult.  I knew how to diagnose and treat each of my patients, but emotionally it stung.  There were the two patients not much older than I am.  One had newly diagnosed metastatic cancer and the other died in my care after a prolonged illness. Then there was the older woman who I had to inform about her new diagnosis of metastatic cancer.  When I asked her if there was family to call, she took my hand and said, “There’s no one.  I’m all alone.”

There are tears trying to breach the barriers of my lower lids as I write that, but I’m ok with that.  One of my favorite things about being an emergency medicine physician is holding space for people during some of the most difficult times in their lives.

Then there was the other case I keep thinking about.  Again, this was a patient not much older than me.  This patient was in respiratory failure due to Covid.  This patient wasn’t vaccinated. All I could think about was getting their spouse back to the bedside so they would have the opportunity to say what needed to be said.  To do that I had to jump through some administrative hurdles.  I did and they had their time together before my patient went up to the ICU.

I’m so thankful they had that time together, but that’s not why I’m still thinking about that case. I’m thinking about it because it all felt mechanical.  With those other patients, I sat at the bedside.  I held hands.  I opened my heart to their experience of their illness.  Then suddenly that emotional space wasn’t available to me.

Today I’ve been thinking about my reaction and my first instinct is to beat myself up.  I want to second guess myself and tell myself how I could have shown up better for that patient.

Then I realized that isn’t helpful.

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that I showed last night to work and I did my best.  I just didn’t have the bandwidth to go there emotionally for that patient and their family and I can also hold space for myself through that.

As caregivers we have such high expectations of our own abilities to care and to feel with our patients, but sometimes we reach our limits and there’s nothing wrong with that.

My life was not changed forever last night on shift even though so many of the lives of my patients and their families were.  To honor them today, I will embrace life and support myself instead of beating myself up.  That way I will be ready to show up for the next round of patients in a few days when I go back to work.

I also won’t blame my unvaccinated patient for this.  It’s not her fault I’m hard on myself when it comes to the limits of my empathy.

If you need help with this right now, I’m here for you.  You can start by downloading my free course “How To Feel Better On Your Next Shift“. Then keep an eye on your email for future coaching opportunities.