I spend a lot of time in hospitals. The reasons for this are too long a story to tell but it is appropriate to say I'm writing this story right now from my son's hospital room. My husband is next door with one of my other sons. This week we have two children having surgery, a "twofer" we're calling it. Sounds more fun than it is. A child is screaming down the hall maybe from pain, maybe from missing their mother.
Sometimes I think of these hospital stays as penance. Because despite challenges, between hospital visits we live an incredible life. Two days in though, we are snapped back to moments of real intensity and reflection when you don't just feel the pain of your own child, or children in my case, but the pain of everyone around you. Like a superhero with super powers, you can see and hear the pain, challenges, love, conflict and victories of other people in a way you never could have imagined before. This is the essence of empathy after all, the ability to see life through someone else's eyes. I watch the medical personnel and wonder how they are able to manage their super power empathy when you can find it overwhelming. Sometimes, if I am truly honest, I do not want to know these things, I want to be like I was before.
I don't know when the exact moment my life changed and I started to see through to someone else's heart but there are a few milestones that stick out as if it was yesterday. Sitting in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) with my 3-week-old son 12 years ago, a newborn baby was admitted to the floor. The new father played vigil for the infant for four days until finally, the mother is rolled onto the floor in her wheelchair to see her child. The mother sat in her wheelchair staring at the baby in its isolette, nervously the husband talks to her about the baby. She doesn't stay long and leaves with the same blank stare she came in with. The whole episode took maybe 15 minutes but I know what happened even though I didn't hear a thing. Every day after that for two weeks until we are discharged I see that father visit his child but the mother returns infrequently. She is not soul-less or heart-less, she is heartbroken. She is sad for what might have been. That was 12 years ago, and it still chills me to the bone.
Eight years later in a different city, different country, and a different hospital I sit quietly bedside while my son is sleeping recovering from something called reanimation surgery for his face. Major surgery including a transplant of a muscle from his leg to his face so that he can have facial expression. After surgery, he looks like he saw the bad end of a hockey stick and the stick won. We are on the plastics/burn floor. It is 11:00 p.m. and a child is being admitted to the floor. Across the hall a child is screaming, screams that pierce through your gut. I can hear the nurses discuss the cleaning of wounds. My son is sedated so he can't hear them but I know without going outside my room. The child screaming is a burn victim and I just want the screaming to stop both in and outside of my head.
You're probably thinking, wow this is some heavy shit. But really what just happened is something beautiful. If your reaction was visceral, uncomfortable, what you felt is empathy, real life alerting empathy. Not isn't that too bad about so and so's child. Maybe you even thought thank God that's not me, which is also empathy, because it means you realize just how lucky are. If you have super power empathy, you might even think maybe today, I can be a little kinder, a little more generous, help someone who is suffering, thank a nurse or doctor because life is not the same for everyone. You can't spend time in a children's hospital and not be changed by it. It does not matter if you are a patient or a visitor.
No matter what you are going through or how severe your situation, you can see and hear someone who is also suffering and those people never leave you. The medical staff, therapists, hospital workers who care for them, volunteers who answer phones or visit your child or work in the game room, the friends or family that support them, they are all part of the super hero network.
It does not matter if it is a holiday or a birthday, hospitals and a giving heart are always open for business. In the movies, we celebrate super heroes for their strength but in life, if we look closely we will see there are people living with super powers all around us, let us not celebrate them but support them in any measure possible. We don't need a holiday or declaration, a warm meal, hug or favor will do. That is after the essence of empathy.
My youngest son smiling after his fifth surgery.