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Is desensitizing necessary or leading to apathy?

By: Michelle Kelly

The medical industry has an interesting way of functioning. A patient’s wellbeing is in the hands of strangers who are supposed to save their lives or keep them as healthy as possible. Many patients put their complete trust in doctors and nurses without any prior knowledge of who these people are. In a work environment as hectic, stressful, and heartbreaking, emotions can typically run high. It is the normal human response to care and express emotions that are being brought up.

Nurses and doctors are portrayed as complete empathetic human beings during their work, except that is not the case. An integral part of nursing is understanding the emotions that will be brought up when dealing with patients. This is not taught to nurses or doctors in school. Instead, they are told to conceal their emotions. They are not allowed to nurture or show much compassion to their patients. They are taught “nurses eat their young” immediately. While in some cases it is not the best idea to sob in front of patients and their family during a difficult time, the lack of expressing emotions can lead to deeper issues within the nurse or doctor.

I read an article about a trauma nurse who would cry a lot and be reprimanded for it. Though she tried to hold back tears during another experience, it didn’t work; She let herself cry. This time the patient thanked her for crying because she felt better that the nurse had empathy for her. Nurses are taught that it is unprofessional to cry and that when they do shed tears, they are reminded that it is unprofessional. Truth is, some patients feel better when the nurses are not cold and express a warm heart. Since crying is a human response to pain or joy, is that deemed unprofessional? The patient is also in an extremely difficult situation and would most likely rather see a nurse who cares than a robot.

I thought back to another experience I read about. A person who just started their residency and had negative experiences with their instructors. One of the instructors told the person, “I’m an asshole, but I’ll make you a better doctor.” The instructor purposely put the new resident down in front of patients and threatened to kick them out daily. The instructor’s goal is supposedly to make “strong” doctors, but it is traumatizing people. This resident claims it’s making them apathetic. They are going through such hell they don’t even care about helping people anymore which was the main goal when starting their career journey. Part of the issue is the definition of what being a strong person is. A strong person should not equate to being apathetic or numbing all of their warm and loving characteristics.

Being surrounded by people who are hurt sounds incredibly difficult. I can imagine they normalize desensitizing emotions because the job would be too difficult. It can be emotionally exhausting to be an empathetic person to all patients on top of being fatigued from the long hours. At the same time, people who are hurt need doctors and nurses who are empathetic. They need to feel comfortable and know they are in good hands that are looking forward to helping them heal.

It’s scary that the doctors and instructors that are teaching prospective healthcare professionals are putting them through hell and forcing them to not care anymore. I’ve experienced it firsthand and watched it happen to loved ones. Many people working in hospitals do not make you feel comfortable. They do their jobs and that is that. Patients are in the most vulnerable position they’ve most likely ever been in. Compassion is necessary for the patients. Compassion is necessary for all beings.

Human beings naturally have feelings unless they are suppressed, or the brain does what it takes to survive. In this case, they are taught to suppress their empath traits. It’s quite terrifying to hear about these experiences. It’s not only traumatizing to the healthcare professionals, but it’s effecting the patients as well.

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