03/23/2012 12:44 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why Does it Seem Most Doctors are Not Compassionate?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

By Lou Davis, Emergency Nurse

One Sunday a few years ago, one of my colleagues Dan was dealing with trauma in our resuscitation room. It had been a terrible week, as the summer was coming to an end and the leaves on the trees were beginning to turn brown, we had already dealt with three fatalities from motorcycle accidents.

By some quirk of 'fate', Dan (at that time probably 27 years old) had dealt with all of these individuals. All of them under 40 years of age. Dan was (is) a deeply compassionate man, caring and helpful. So, after he had tried to save these lives, and failed, he insisted on going to inform the families himself.

There was a woman with 2 young children, a younger brother of another. He sat quietly and told these families that he had been unsuccessful, that their loved one had died, suddenly, tragically. Each time he walked from the room, he looked less like Dan, he started to look 'haunted'.

Death is the ultimate 'insult' in many ways to those of us who choose to specialise in Emergency Medicine. Dan had been challenged, and in his eyes, he had failed.

Sunday awakened, crystal clear blue skies. The slight smell of wood smoke in the air. The last gasp of summer. And we knew that the week wasn't over when we heard the insistent bell of our 'red phone'. Another motorcyclist, taking advantage of the wonderful day.

Dan swung into action, confident, capable. When I say that he wouldn't have worked harder for one of his own family, I mean it. He was determined. The patient died, as he put it to the man's wife some minutes later 'despite our best efforts'.

He was to say it twice more that day. Two more families to add to the total that Dan had already dealt with during that bleak week. We sat together that evening, Dan weeping with sorrow, with frustration, at what he felt was his failure, his impotence.

There were many more occasions when Dan had to break bad news, had to tell people that they had something terribly wrong with them, or with their relative.

I have seen him change, he is still the 'Dan' I know and love but he is different. He is different because he has to protect himself.

It isn't that he lacks compassion, not at all. He genuinely feels pain and sadness but he has built a 'shell' around himself because our job is hard. In many ways, it is the hardest job.

Dan became a Dr because he cares about people, he wants to help, he wants to alleviate suffering but, when all is said and done, he is human - as I am, as all of our colleagues are. We may all 'appear' to lack compassion, we may seem 'hard', 'uncaring','unfeeling'. I can assure you, that in MOST cases that is not true. We have to learn how to cope with seeing and hearing things that, hopefully, most people would not be able to conceive.

I cry frequently, occasionally I will cry with families of patients, often I cry at home, at night, in the dark. I have seen suffering. I care, Dan cares but we have to do this so often that we develop a way which allows us to cope, to carry on.

This perhaps is not the answer that others will give, I would say 'walk a mile in our shoes', we are not perfect, we have a long way to go but we do this job BECAUSE we care and we are only human.