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Empathy - I am more than a Number

by Patti Parsons

I don’t dislike numbers. In fact, a world without them would be pretty scary. How would we know our age? Our street address? The best price for a gallon of milk or gas? Numbers convey all kinds of useful information. They define the value of a good or service. They just don’t define me.

Many of us have sat in waiting rooms, nervously anticipating an appointment with our healthcare provider. After a few minutes (or longer) our ‘number’ is called. And so starts the process.

Other numbers are collected…weight, blood pressure, temperature. Those numbers are added to numeric values from recent lab tests. The medical assistant or computer algorithm assembles all these numbers in some useful order.

I sit in the exam room awaiting arrival of my healthcare provider. Sometimes I am fully clothed…other times not. Either way, I am vulnerable. I yearn for understanding, connection, for conversation.

The healthcare provider arrives, says hello, then directs his/her attention to a monitor filled with numbers. I await the report with palpable anxiety. Is it possible I skewed the numbers by eating the wrong thing or fasting fewer hours than directed? Will the numbers be wrong because I didn’t do it right?

The provider reviews and synthesizes the data. This value is normal, the next four a little high, the following six numbers are OK relative to the previous 5 values.

In a brief attempt to connect to the human condition, the provider asks about my pain level. I respond with a scaled numeric value. It was four yesterday but a two today. It then occurs to me that pain with all its associated emotional, physical, and spiritual forces was just reduced to a five factor scale of facial emoticons and their respective numbers.

The provider recommends additional tests. Blood must be drawn from elusive veins that cower just beneath the skin, shielding themselves from the phlebotomist’s needle. One, two, then three attempts before the vial fills. I wince from the pain.

As the medical assistant reviews the lab orders, she casually mentions that the tests will not be covered by my insurance. Say what?? How much will the lab work cost? Are the tests really necessary? I recoil at the prospect of, again, raiding my retirement savings to obtain another set of numbers that I don’t understand.

I try to comprehend all these numbers, what they mean for my health, for my family, for others who count on me. But that understanding would require the provider’s undivided attention, a suspension of the recitation of numbers, a pause for connection.

As a rule, healthcare providers are intelligent. They are also healers by choice. They know (or should know) that healing requires the appropriate balance of head and heart, of intellect and feeling. The person sitting across the monitor from them is, well, a person. And not just any person, a person in need of comprehensible information and assurance.

I’m a consumer AND a healthcare provider. But in the context of my doctor’s appointment, I’m a human being seeking knowledge and acceptance. I’m someone who desires nothing more (or less) than a respectful and supportive relationship with my healthcare provider.

Numbers can be a part of that relationship. I don’t dismiss their importance. But I am far more than numeric values on a computer screen. I am me. And for those healthcare providers with whom I share time, I only ask that you see and relate to me. Have empathy. Both of us will be healthier in body, mind and spirit for the effort.

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