In a single moment, our world was turned upside down in the summer of 2015. Our first son, Abel Paul, was diagnosed with Trisomy 18 in the first trimester of our pregnancy. Everything we had mentally envisioned and emotionally longed for had suddenly shifted with the news that our boy’s earthly life would likely be much shorter than any parent would hope for.
To compound the matter, the original doctor who confirmed Abel’s condition quickly recommended that we have an abortion, saying we could always try again for a better, healthier baby. While his words did not convince us to end our son’s life prematurely, they did convince us to choose different prenatal specialist.
We can’t overstate the positive impact that a medical provider can have on their patients in the midst of a vulnerable pregnancy, and we’re always deeply moved when a doctor goes above and beyond to care for these families. We experienced this with Dr. Kevin Magee and his team at the Fetal Care Center in Dallas.
At the same time, when I see or hear of a doctor’s impact actually being more negative than positive, it can be discouraging because I know it doesn’t need or have to be that way. One way or another, this is for certain: the medical community will play a pivotal role in every family’s journey through a high-risk pregnancy.
So what’s the X factor? What determining factor will cause a family to feel safe and supported rather than disregarded and discouraged? It comes down to one word: empathy.
*The content below was adapted from an article we originally wrote for the Fetal Care Center blog. Its aim was to be a brief resource for medical providers walking alongside families who have been given a life-limiting pregnancy diagnosis, but its application can be applied far more broadly than that context.
What is empathy?
The dictionary defines empathy as “the action of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.”
You have empathy for a person when you can imagine how they might feel based on what you know about their situation.
It’s the ability to “put yourself in someone else’s shoes” and consider your words and actions accordingly.
Why is empathy so important for a medical provider?
The vulnerable place these families find themselves in will already cause them to feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle. When the folks that you expect to equip and encourage you are actually cold, detached and uncaring, it is beyond devastating.
In contrast, one of the biggest blessings of our journey carrying a son with Trisomy 18 was knowing that our doctors empathized with the place we had found ourselves in. They supported our decision to carry Abel, valued and respected his life in the womb, and partnered with us to make that season as sweet as possible.
Particularly when a family’s time with their child may be limited, it’s no exaggeration to say that the doctor-patient relationship can shape this season like no other. It’s my opinion that with great power comes great responsibility.
So here are a few possible examples of what empathy looks like for families who choose to carry a child during a high-risk pregnancy:
What does empathy look like in action?
1. The doctors and the family are on the same team.
Empathy looks like clearly communicating all of the medical options to a family, giving them the pros and cons of each option and supporting the decision the family makes. This is an opportunity for a medical provider to educate the family and recognize that this child has been entrusted to these specific parents and that they can make the best decision for their child if they are properly educated and supported.
Medical providers who take the time to listen and learn what matters most to their patients and provide counsel according to those wishes will set themselves apart. If a family truly feels that you are for them and not against them, it changes everything.
Empathy builds trust. This is a win/win because the family will then be more open to talking through the difficult (yet necessary) decisions they might have to make. On the flip side, when a family feels opposed or backed into a corner, the patient-doctor dynamic will deteriorate or escalate. Nobody wins.
2. Medical providers offer specialized care and acknowledge the humanity of the baby.
Empathy looks like saying “he/she” (if known) and using the child’s name (if given) to acknowledge the humanity of their beloved baby. This approach communicates that you respect and acknowledge the value of their son or daughter’s life.
Furthermore, the worst thing a doctor can do is assume they know everything about that particular baby simply based on their diagnosis. After learning the family’s hopes and priorities, provide a specific individualized plan of care to every child rather than writing them off.
3. The doctors provide sonograms and engage the parents in the process.
Empathy looks like providing thoughtful, thorough sonograms and engaging the parents in the process (example: let the parents gently press on mom’s belly so they can see their baby respond to their touch with movements).
Capture clear profile shots of the baby to print. Provide as many sonograms for the family as you can. I simply can’t communicate how special it is to stop and savor these memorable moments rather than rushing through them because these may be the only moments they get with their child.
The Impact of Empathy for Medical Providers and Patients
We hope the brief reflections and perspectives above will be beneficial to both medical patients and medical providers.
It encourages us when I think about the doctors I’ve seen embody this kind of empathetic understanding and support for the families they serve.
We truly believe that doctors can be the heroes in each family’s journey, and we are fully committed to linking arms with the physicians who have sought to care for their patients with grace and empathy.