Putting Yourself in Someone Else’s Shoes without Running Their Race: Healing through Empathy

By: Siarra Nielsen

Professor Bucher

Therapeutic Communications, Mondays at 6 p.m.

8 June 2015

1      Choosing Our Topic

The other members in my group include Diana Gordiyenko, Maria Karnaukh, and Elyssa “Denise” Cuneta. When it came time to decide our topic, our group had no trouble voicing ideas. Maria had valuable input and she led the discussion. We created our project as a team. The team decided that our topic was broad enough that we would all be able to relate to the topic of empathy.

2      How I Relate to Our Topic

When I was two-years-old I sustained a serious injury that has affected my entire life. My left arm was pulled out of the socket and I was left with damaged nerve plexuses. I’ve had migraines my entire life and I started having seizures during adolescence. My ribs, shoulders, left arm and accompanying limbs, my neck and various other parts of my body and mind have readjusted to accommodate my horrible pains and they are all out of place. Only through specialized doctors, intense physical and occupational therapy, medications, nerve block injections, massages, hot water treatments, exercises, group and individual therapies, pain management courses and a tight support system, have I been able to function on a more normal level as compared to before my treatments.

My condition has been diagnosed as Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS) with seizures. In a nut shell, my thalamus (the region of the brain that receives pain signals from the spinal cord and relays the information to higher regions of the brain, located in the center of the brain) misinterprets pain signals. My amygdala (the region of the brain that anticipates pain and reacts to perceived threats, located near the thalamus’ southwest quadrant) is highly sensitive and reacts to pain at all times. Unfortunately, my right lateral orbitofrontal cortex (the section of the brain that evaluates sensory stimuli and decides on the response) is overactive as well. I cannot stand high pitch frequencies, like the sound pressing buttons on a microwave makes, or flashing lights (even simply flipping on a light switch causes me agony).

When I turned 14-years-old and started having seizures, my problems quickly escalated. After steadily facing three seizures a day, my mom decided to send me to a specialized program for children with CRPS. There were two options for hospitals: one in Philadelphia and one in Seattle. Being only four hours away from Seattle, my mom added my name to the waiting list. My name came up in October of 2009, just before my first real homecoming dance. I had been asked to two separate dances and it broke my heart that I needed to miss them both. Luckily, my mom sweet talked the hospital coordinator to allowing me an extra few days before starting the program so I ended up being able to attend one of the dances. It was an amazing night and my date and I took tons of pictures with our friends.

I hung the photos up all over my hospital room so I could remember how much fun I had. I also brought a CD player with speakers so I wasn’t so lonely. My friends and family wrote to me often and my mom drove from Vancouver several times a week to visit with me. I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had at the hospital, it seems like there’s a special bond between us having been separated from the world by painful and scary health issues. I actually married another patient from one of the hospitals I went to for an evaluation.

The treatments made me violently ill but the staff was so kind and understanding that I still cry (happy tears) when I remember the way they treated me. There was so much love and humor that I felt more at home in the hospital than my own home. I feel like the ladies really understood how much fear I had and how much sensitivity and heart wrenching pain I deal with. They experimented and found tons of activities that I could work on that helped me progress. I completed timed “animal walks” in which I had to beat my previous time every time or I had to restart until I improved. There were bear walks, crab walks, frog walks, and several others. It was very intense and I had to travel a long distance to complete the tasks. I had to do that specific exercise multiple times a day for my month-long treatment.

My physical therapy (PT) was four hours and day, daily for a month. My occupational therapy (OT) was four hours a day and also daily for a month. My group therapies were six hours per day for the first two weeks. I was pushed to my limits and then some, repeatedly. However, it was such an amazing experience that I long to go back. My PT and OT each focused on me with complete attention. After watching me and conversing with one another, they discovered that I loved to sing. Whenever my pain was so bad that I couldn’t function, I would sing a song or listen to music to override the pain signals as much as possible. Then the PT and OT had an awesome idea. They helped me choreograph a dance routine to a High School Musical song that I knew all the words to. My OT also allowed me to download songs from her personal laptop while I did my balance exercises to motivate me to push through the pain.

We went on jogs outside and long runs along the Burke Gilman Trail. My OT ran with me and brought her gorgeous German Sheppard to motivate me. She helped me navigate through the foreign environment and led me around town to her favorite bakery where she bought me a healthy treat for working so hard. The adventures I had in Seattle are unparalleled.

3      Analysis

The way that the staff made me feel safe and strong helped shape my life. I stopped seeing myself as weak all the time and I realized that I’m a warrior. I still have the fasted crab walks anyone has ever seen, even six years later without practice.

The kindness that the staff at Seattle Children’s Hospital (SCHOP) and the Seattle Ronald McDonald House showed me makes me cry because I felt important. I felt like I mattered, like people cared. It was a strange feeling for me and I needed the empathy. I felt so alone before. I was so young when I started going through all the pain and no one really understood how serious my condition was. My seizures caught my mom by surprise and none of my other family members comprehended what I was facing. I knew I was sick, but until the staff at SCHOP listened and responded with love, I felt like I was living a double life. I was hurting but nobody had ever empathized with me before because no one else understood because I smiled as much as possible while I tried to appreciate life.

4      Empathy vs. Sympathy

Showing empathy to people in the hospital can shape their lives and help them become empathetic people in return. The difference between empathy and sympathy lays in the emphasis and subject.

Empathy refers to understanding another’s emotions and reasoning. It’s characterized by the focus on another person. The main element is active listening and it shows the person respect.

In juxtaposition, sympathy focuses on the receiver of the message. This means that the patient may share his or her feelings but the nurse relates the situation back to his or her own experiences or opinions. It’s said that sympathy shows selfishness and one should active listen with empathy instead.

Empathy is important because it shows the patients that they matter and are worthy of someone listening to their situations. I think that everyone should work on improving their empathetic responses. The world would be a much more (positively) sensitive place.


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