By Rahmat Na’Allah, MD, MPH

Rahmat Na’Allah, MD, MPH

It’s hard to believe it’s been a year and a half since I wrote my last blog addressing the disproportionate plague of teenage pregnancy and its lifelong impact on families and communities. I told TC’s story as she just had her fourth baby at age 21. She is now 23 years old and recently had her fifth.

From the outside, pointing fingers is simple. Multiple no-shows, failed routines, and more – these cases are not an anomaly. As caregivers forming real, personal connections, it’s not easy to see. You can get so emotionally exhausted that you feel you don’t have any more to give. If these last two years have proven anything, it’s that this profession is not easy on the heart. But the ability to persist draws back in our decision to ground our work in empathy, every single time.

Empathy is the ability to understand or sense what others are feeling or experiencing. According to “Dr. Brene Brown on Empathy vs. Sympathy” by Psychology Today, its four qualities are:

  • To be able to see the world as others see it
  • To be nonjudgmental
  • To understand another’s feeling
  • To communicate your understanding of that person’s feeling

Empathy for Self

According to Steven Handel’s “Why Self Awareness is The First Step Towards Self Empathy,” in able to understand others, we must better understand ourselves. Speak to yourself the way you would to your valued friend. Be your own friend and cheerleader! But most importantly, forgive yourself.

You have a front row seat to everything you could have done better, or faster, or cleaner. Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. This is not to say you should lose insight to your mistakes, but in order to grow, you have to get out of your own way. I am repeating myself because it cannot be said enough – forgive yourself.

Empathy for our Patients

After the latest instance of being separated from her children, TC turned an overwhelming sense of loss into a fighting spirit that I have never seen before. She left the hospital with determination to stay clean, avoid bad company, get a job, and enter into inpatient drug rehab. I cannot point to a single spark of the change, just like I cannot pinpoint a single source. What I can do is be there to walk beside her when she’s ready. So I do.

Empathy for our Community

The unending pandemic has brought a lot of stress, anxiety and sadness. We’ve seen each other go through personality changes that personally and collectively, we didn’t even know we possess. One thing is true, we are all in this struggle together. By cultivating genuine curiosity about the person who cleans the lounge or the call rooms, we get to learn about our commonalities and challenge our prejudices.

The system is not always set up to help the likes of TC. We must walk in the other person’s shoes to be able to understand the challenges of their life. Ability to listen, open up and be vulnerable are not weak traits, but rather signs of strength and humanism. Many times, that person just needs us to listen and be quiet.

Bringing about mass action and social change are community ways of showing empathy. Coming together to address the many “isms” in our community is the responsible way to show empathy. Collaborating to address racism, sexism, gender equality, xenophobia, islamophobia, health and social inequity, segregation, climate change, and all forms of discriminatory practices are ways to demonstrate compassionate empathy. This includes empathizing with those who don’t share our beliefs or may even be considered enemies.

TC’s Success Story

TC had to wait for a whole month after discharge from the hospital for a bed to be available at inpatient drug rehab. During this time, she got a full time job, checked in daily with her caseworker, stayed clean, and has started fulfilling the process of being certified fit to get her children. She has positive cheerleaders who are providing support and encouragement. My girl is going to MAKE IT!

The Empathy Pledge

I pledge to be a positive influence on my friends, family, and community.

I promise to listen with an open heart, without judgment.

I give my word to speak with sincerity and kindness.

When I am challenged, I will see the humanity in others.

I commit to recognizing and checking my privileges.

I understand that we come from different backgrounds.

I vow to pay attention to our societal needs.

I will choose love when things get hard.

I pledge to choose empathy.

About the Author

Dr. Rahmat Na’Allah is a Professor of Clinical Family Medicine and Family Medicine Obstetrics Fellowship Director.