Tag Archives: Empathy

In the Mouth of Madness – The Work of a Respiratory Therapist


Respiratory Therapy

Every day that you breathe comfortably is a gift. This, I say with absolute surety, after 14 years as a critical care Respiratory Therapist.  Every hour you live is a chance to learn something; not a fact or a skill, because these are too tangible, too easy to grasp. No, every day is a chance to learn one more thing about human connection and an opportunity to explore the boundaries set for us by our limitations and our fears.

Flash back 10 years ago to the critical care bedside of a tiny infant, connected to my life-supporting equipment. It is my job, on this day, to be in this room, at this moment and to press that button; Yes, THAT button. The button that turns off a machine that made it look like this baby was taking its own breaths. I’m not alone. On this day there is a doctor with me and a nurse nearby outside the door. But it feels like I am alone because no one is making eye contact. No one is saying out loud what I am screaming inside, “Dear God, this is breaking my heart.”  But really, I am glad it is me. This way, I can be so absolutely gentle and kind, yet swift when I remove the tube from her mouth. This way, I get to say goodbye as well before I quietly leave the room.

Nothing could have prepared us for this. There was no didactic course on terminal weaning babies or palliative withdrawal of life support on patients that look and sound exactly like my grandmother. And so, we learn as we go, pushing the boundaries of our fears and sending out ‘feelers’ into our psyche to probe a dark emotion that we were never trained to recognize. We can sustain life beyond expectations but were not taught to embrace death.

As I sat with an elderly gentleman in an ER at 4am a few years ago, I finally started to unravel this tangle of emotions that reared its head repeatedly.  I withdrew a BiPAP mask and then watched caregivers duck back away behind curtains. Pieces of the puzzle fell into place. We are healers. We fix people. We pride ourselves in this ability, boastful and resounding. Death is to be overcome! We shall not surrender… but if we do…when we do, we lose purpose. We feel weak. We feel shame. The dark and tangled emotions of failure, fear, vulnerability, and shame all blended opaque and smeared across our vision. We can no longer see the person we were caring for without the reminder that we were not enough.

So I became enough. Slowly at first but with steady purpose, when there was no family, I became the family. When hands reached out in fear of the unknown, I shrugged off my hesitation and held onto those hands. Fear was overcome by the strength of human connection. In these moments, my practice changed forever and so did I. My rusted old personal boundaries flexed and were broken. Relationships blossomed and life just made more sense. Everything became more real. I have never looked back.

The work of a Respiratory Therapist or any other critical care practitioner is incredibly stressful and exhausting. Finishing a set of 12 hour days and nights, it is all we can do to not run out the hospital doors laughing maniacally on our way home screaming ” No one died…it was a great night!” But on those nights when one of our patients does pass away, we can learn so much in reflection. What if we stepped right around our fears and walked boastfully up to death saying “It’s ok that you are here. Let me help you take them kindly”.  Knowing we are enough. Knowing we did our best.


All grown up…?

Harness more life energy: Boost your EQ!  Photo: www.ppswest.com/blog/

Harness more life energy: Boost your EQ!
Photo: http://www.ppswest.com/blog/

Just wanted to share this great article recently posted by another website.

Emotional Intelligence has profoundly shifted to the forefront of my awareness over the past decade and this article gives a great recap of what ‘EQ’ entails (i.e. what we are striving for).

The real work lies in getting from where you are now ‘in your head’ to where you want to be. Unleashing more EQ. Prepare for emotional blood, sweat and tears because this is the real work of life. Shifting through the thoughts in your head and your reactions to people and events to trace back to the base human emotions that were evoked. What do you fear the most? What causes you shame? Where do you search for love and acceptance? Emotional intelligence effects your search for love, your joy in life and your everyday behaviour. It allows you to have empathy and truly connect to other people.

Realizing your potential, your joy and passions as well as the same features in everyone around you are some of the rewards of an improved emotional intelligence! Don’t wait. This is some of the most important work you will ever do.

Paying it Back, in Kind



I am having a bad day. You know, the kind where you wake up annoyed and just can’t seem to snap out of it? Today, I feel like the weight above me is just heavy enough to override the wind beneath me. In other words, I feel down. What’s got me in this funk? Who really knows, but at my best guess, I think I have taken too much on again. I feel like my ‘to-do’ lists are growing wings, levitating off the kitchen island and taking flight for the sole purpose of flapping around my head all day. Like a murder of crows after a chunk of fine flesh, these lists will consume me piece by piece. My mind is always with them, ever-buzzing, never at peace. Today, these lists make me sad. Sad that I cannot seem to muster up enough empathy for myself to just let them die a quiet, pulpy death. If I could only grant myself as much kindness as I could any friend or acquaintance in a tough spot, each day would be that much more free.

Think about the last time you sat with a friend who was hurting or upset. Did you lower your voice? Speak softly to be sure they were really hearing you? Did you use empathy and really try to understand their situation so that you could give an honest outlook? Were you caring and sympathetic? So what if we could use this same kind and consoling manner with ourselves? What if today, I just took 10 minutes to create some compassion for myself, acknowledging my daily struggles and recognizing that I have some choices to make. As any good friend would, I can note that I am doing the very best that I can. I could suggest that I am being a little too hard on myself and expecting too much. Perhaps, expecting more than anyone else ever would.

Self-compassion and empathy would likely allow me to again remember that I am enough. To acknowledge my worth and my value – without all the unnecessary trimmings. I could speak softly and gently, kindly guiding the way. Then, I could let the lists rest like paper should, in a pile, waiting its turn to be dealt with. There are more important things to be done. Like tickling my children to entice their laughter, holding my husband’s hand just to feel his warmth, and twirling around the kitchen to my favorite song. All things guaranteed to lift me up above this hazy fog to clear skies and brighter days.


Animal Nature – Extreme empathy as a method of personal growth


Last weekend my family visited the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle. Our second time there, it was as enjoyable as our first, the children learning and discovering in this beautiful setting.  My daughter and I overheard a hippo laugh (did you know they made this incredible sound?), my son got to feed an elephant (maple leaves were her favorite) and we all witnessed the stunning beauty of the orangutans for the second time. This year, a female sat at the glass, wondering at our faces for over 10 minutes. She was only the distance of the depth of the glass away and it was mesmerizing. In only minutes, she changed me. I can say the same of only a handful of humans.

"…a window to the soul." to be sure. At the very least, a reflection of purity and want.

“…a window to the soul.” to be sure. At the very least, a reflection of purity and want.

She sat, still as a stone, peering at us as she likely had with so many others, so very many times before. I imagine we are her entertainment; a colorful, travelling spectacle along the one side of her home. I sat only a foot from her beautiful face and wondered with both a feeling of sadness and awe. What could she be thinking? How does she perceive us? Are we simply a distraction? How many faces can she possibly look at in a day without tiring, being irritated or becoming angry?

This face, so like and yet so unlike our own. Her eyes looking into mine unwavering and bold. This is the longest I have kept eye contact with any face in years. No expectations. No agenda. No intent to convince, deceive, argue, ignore. Just looking and seeing. I had my children sit in front of me and watch her. Yearning for them to see her beauty and be marked with the memory.


I cannot help but hope that we can we bring this connection into our lives. I wonder at what we can learn from her?

How do we see our friends, family and those we do not know? DO we see each other or do we swirl our thoughts about in our own heads so much that we are too preoccupied to see? We CRAVE connections  but are so misguided in our half-hearted attempt at creating them. Social media has allowed great gains in finding the OPPORTUNITY for connection but not to really connect and know one another.

When I put myself in the place of this gorgeous ruddy mass of hair and muscle, I can only imagine what she feels or thinks. Is that not the same as any other relationship? To place myself in the body and mind of another with full intent to understand and experience can be a hugely revealing experience. The practice of extreme empathy has the power to calm me. It allows me a pause in reaction that I would never have attained otherwise. I yearn to know more and ask more questions. I want to understand and feel outside of my experience. I want to feel what you feel. To know and gain experience through others, not simply by my own journeys. To feel the weight of stress on another person simply by exploring their situation with my mind has been so revealing. To feel a relief and regaining of strength through a tale has me energized and full of strength.

The mind has such great power. What if we could harness this to explore each other and create connections that are stronger and more solidly based in fact than our own opinion? What if we sat and looked? What if we listened with our whole body to what we were being told? Could we have any hope to stay focused on the benefit of others, keeping their happiness and success as our primary goal? Could we be sustained by this and learn to thrive on living to help others if we did?

Moving through our busy lives, the hours of a day melting into days and then months, we keep our heads down, focusing in. Is this self preservation? Habit? Reluctance to engage? Perhaps it is self-indulgence because we deserve our time after giving so very much of our day to the task of working for others. We walk around in search of OUR coffee, OUR music, OUR space, OUR comfort.

But what if we ‘worked’ for ourselves? What if every single interaction in our day was targeted at creating the best version of us to present in every moment. To cause a stir in someone else because they felt heard for the first time in years. An opportunity to create an experience like no other. Using extreme, engaged empathy to journey beyond where we would normally go in our daily lives. Maybe then, in mere minutes, we too could change others.