02/27/2014 03:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Think Empathy's Just a Nice Idea? Think Again...

Empathy In Action: How a Concept is Making Real Change In the World


The world can be a scary and confusing place when you're a kid, even if you're one of the lucky ones and have every imaginable amenity at your disposal. Even the most fortunate children learn from an early age that some days are just bad, things often have a way of not working out, and sometimes, people are cruel to each other. And no matter how much parents try to protect their children from pain and suffering, the world has a way of throwing curve balls. What makes being human such a wonderful thing, of course, is that when we're having a bad day, or week, or even year, sometimes the emotional support of a friend, loved one or stranger can make an incredible, tangible difference.

Take a look at this heartwarming example: A few years ago, a General Electric employee named Doug Dietz was working in design and development and was proud to reveal, after several years of work, a new and improved MRI machine. Thrilled with the result and eager to see it in practice, Dietz traveled to a hospital to take a look and talk to staffers to see what they thought about all the machine's new bells and whistles. While there, however, Dietz witnessed something that changed his life: a child on her way to a scan in his machine, petrified at having to enter something that looked so scary. The MRI technician explained that as many as 80 percent of pediatric patients must be sedated to undergo MRI and other such scans due to similar fears. Dietz was floored. He hadn't thought at all about the aesthetic of the machine; he had been solely focused on the effectiveness and innovation.

Devastated by the child's fear, he was motivated into action. He sought advice from colleagues and attended a week-long conference focused on a human-centered approach to design and innovation. Back home, he observed and gained empathy for young children at a daycare center and talked with child life specialists to understand what pediatric patients go through. Finally, after much hard work and creative thinking, Dietz had transformed an MRI suite into a child's adventure story, with the patient in a starring role. He and his team applied colorful decals to the outside of the machine and to every surface in the room, covering the floor, ceilings, walls, and all of the equipment, showcasing themes like "Pirate Ship" and "Space Adventure;" the team also created scripts for machine operators so they could lead their young patients through the adventures. With these scan adventure machines in place, the number of pediatric patients needing sedation for these scans was being dramatically reduced.

What this story teaches us is this: Empathy can change the world. Doug Dietz decided that just doing his job wasn't enough, so he made some huge waves affecting the lives of many families. Seeing one child's pain and feeling that it was unacceptable, he committed his own time, energy, money and resources to finding a solution that would make the stress and fear go away for countless sick children. Having spent years of his life devoted to streamlining and perfecting the MRI machine, it wasn't until he took a human-centered approach to design and innovation, letting compassion and empathy for others be his guide, that he began to truly push the limits of his work and find avenues of progress he couldn't have imagined before.

In a very real way, this is the work we strive for at Children Mending Hearts. In encouraging creative expression via lessons teaching the culture and struggles of other countries, we are trying to connect ideas of creativity, innovation and art with concepts of global citizenry, empathy and compassion for others. The more inseparable we can make these concepts and the earlier we can impart them to the youth we work with, the better. They emerge more likely to approach their own struggles in life with a creative and positive outlook, and more inclined to reach out and help others when they see them in pain. This approach to life is empowering for our students and it is necessary for our increasingly interconnected world.

In economic and business circles, 2014 has been labelled the "Year of Empathy," as companies have started realizing the importance of developing a deep understanding and appreciation for their customers. We here at CMH have long been ahead of this trend and have been working for years with a focus on how empathy and global citizenry can change us all and improve our world. And we're working toward it every day, one child at a time. Check in regularly on our blog and website to see how we're reaching our goals and how our students are inspiring us and empowering themselves and each other. It's truly a sight to behold.

Lysa Heslov