During my son’s stay in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit( NICU) for the first 8 weeks of his birth, because of his prematurity, he developed a life-threatening infection of his small Intestine, called NEC(necrotizing enterocolitis). He needed urgent IV antibiotics, but the doctors were having a hard time getting access to his veins to infuse them.
Waiting all night long by the side of my baby boy’s incubator, I felt overwhelmed with the worries of his health. It was 2.00 am in the night and I couldn’t wait for the morning rounds to start so that the doctors would try again. I felt helpless as his mother and was praying hard for his well-being. His nurse suggested that I go home and get some rest.
With a heavy heart and a very anxious mind, I left the NICU and started walking the long corridors of the hospital towards the parking lot. I couldn’t pay much attention to the surroundings, except for the silence of the hallways. Suddenly I got startled by a man’s voice, as a stranger walked up to me. With a frantic tone, he appeared to be in a state of panic. I could see he was shaking and crying.
He said he had lost his sense of direction and asked me if I knew the way to the NICU. He said that his son was born prematurely and had not been doing well. He was born with a heart condition and was being life-flighted to a nearby hospital for heart surgery. He started sobbing. And was constantly apologizing for holding me, to listen to his plight. I said little. I just looked at him and tried to hear him out as he was venting his grief about the health of his child. I could immediately feel the pain and distress he was in. He must have spoken for about 5 or 10 minutes.
I was not sure if it was my human side or the Psychiatrist in me, or both, but I remember trying my level best to give him my full attention, as he was sharing his feelings. In those five minutes, I remember, of forgetting my own worries. My mind which was racing with many scary thoughts regarding my child’s wellbeing suddenly started paying attention to not just the silence of the hallways, but the pain and grief of this man’s voice, along with his shaking hands and the tears in his eyes.
He thanked me for listening. I could tell that he felt a bit of a relief, at least in those few minutes, as he wiped his tears, stopped shaking, and then followed the directions to the NICU after he reoriented himself. His gratitude was clear, but I wondered if he realized, what he had done for me in return?
Cause as I started walking back to the parking lot, I caught myself coming out of that cloud of helplessness. That fear and worry which was sitting in my mind for the health and wellbeing of my little baby boy had suddenly subsided.
I felt hopeful. I knew my child would be fine. The doctors will get access to his veins. He will get his antibiotics and make a good recovery. The rest of the drive home in the darkness of that night was pretty peaceful, and humbling. I also hoped and prayed that his baby got the care he needed and make a good recovery. My son did great as well and is now a healthy, happy 12-year-old middle schooler.
Such can be the power of empathy. As Brene Brown rightfully puts it,’ Empathy is the most powerful antidote to shame and cultivates courage, compassion, and connection”.
Empathy means, “to put ourselves in another person’s shoes”. Or to feel what the other person is feeling in a given moment. That’s it. It’s not an action but more so a feeling.
Being empathic does more for you than it does for the person towards whom you are being empathic. It grounds us in a moment. Leaves us grateful, relaxed, and mindful.
Empathy is never a weakness. It’s a strength and for some, it may come naturally but for those of us who have to work for it, it’s worth an effort.
With love and Gratitude.