Thursday, October 1, 2020

Fighting for Compassion in Medicine: Thank you Sam Grewe

The latest installment of "What Would You Fight For?" concluded with the charge: "Fighting for compassion in medicine. We are the fighting Irish."

Fighting for compassion? and in medicine? Something doesn't add up.  However, according to Notre Dame Professor Dominic Vachon, "We used to think it was important to train emotional detachment. That was wrong." He adds, "Here at Notre Dame we're teaching and studying compassion from the perspective of biology and neuroscience, to help our future doctors and nurses to have a foundation in a compassionate mindset. Both for their patients' benefits as well as for themselves."

Notre Dame's website reports, "In 1995 Vachon was a practicing psychologist, counseling health care providers worn thin by day after day of patient care. In time, Vachon, too, became burnt out. To survive, he emotionally detached from his patients but still harbored a growing burden. He wasn’t alone — more than 50 percent of physicians have symptoms of burnout, and the impact is seen on both the physicians and their patients. The antidote, Vachon believed, was a better understanding of compassion in caregivers. But he needed the science to prove it."

“There is a crisis of compassion in health care,” says Vachon. “Compassion is essential for patient care and it’s essential for the well-being of the clinician. The two go hand in hand.”There is more to medicine than the science skills." While it was surprising to me that health care was remotely devoid of compassion, I was not surprised in the least to read about the symbiotic benefit it affords patient and provider. 

Compassion, Vachon is quick to note, "is more than kindness and cheerful bedside demeanor. It has four distinct components: You have to notice suffering, be moved by it, want to do something about it, and act capably."

“Compassion is more than your feelings. Compassion is your motivation to apply your competence to that patient in front of you. Compassion is what drives you to be as competent as you can be,” he explains. “When you think that compassion is only about being sympathetic and warm and good bedside manner, those are all true, but what the science of compassion really helps reveal to us is that it’s not just your emotions. It’s actually how you manage your emotions, how you’re motivated to respond to the suffering in front of you. And how you can bring to bear all your competence right in front of you.”

I understand the *science* of the virtue. I appreciate the psychology behind the study. Medicine and healing, patient care and providence (lower case "s") depend on it. But, to me—as a believer, a Christian, a woman of faith and as a child of God—it is something more.  I have come to know and understand compassion best through the students of Father Greg Boyle.

In his book "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion" recalls stories from teaching “Theological Issues in American Short Fiction” in Folsom State Prison. At one point, he notes that his students—convicted felons—use the terms sympathy, empathy and compassion interchangeably. He asks "What's the difference?"

"Well, sympathy," one begins, "is when your homie's mom dies and you go up to him and say, "Spensa — sorry to hear 'bout your moms." 

Just as quickly, there is a volunteer to define empathy.

"Yeah, well, empathy is when your homie's mom dies and you say, "Spensa, 'bout your moms. Sabes quĂ©, my moms died six months ago. I feel ya, dog." 

"Excellent," I say. "Now, what's compassion?"

No takers. The class collectively squirms and stares at their state-issue boots.

"Come on now,' I say, 'Compassion — what's it mean?"

Their silence is quite sustained, like visitors entering for the first time some sacred, mysterious temple. Finally, an old-timer, down twenty-five years, tentatively raises his finger. I call on him.

"Well, now,' he says, all eyes on him, shaking his head, 'Compassion — that's sumthin' altogether different."

He ponders what he'll say next.

"Cause,' he adds humbly, 'That's what Jesus did. I mean, Compassion . . . IS . .  God."

God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we're asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus' soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. 

Jesus pulled this off. Compassion is no fleeting occasional emotion rising to the surface like eros or anger. It's full-throttled. Scripture scholars connect the word to the entrails, to the bowels, from the deepest part of the person. This was how Jesus was moved, from the entirety of his being. He was 'moved with pity' when he saw folks who seemed like 'sheep without a shepherd.' He had room for everybody in his compassion.

When I think of compassion, I think of Jesus. It's that simple for me. He modeled the very definition that Vachon gave. Christ noticed the suffering of both men and women. Scripture reveals that he was moved by it time and again. We know he wanted to do something about it for He called on the Father. His miracles, His touch, His love brought healing. Indeed he acted capably.

Sam Grewe said, "My doctor's empathy —it helped me through some of my darkest days." No wonder we say Jesus is the light of the world. 

Thank you Sam for sharing your story—one of Sports and Spirituality, of hope and of healing.

Photo Credits
High Jump
Young Sam
Light of the World

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