A Lesson In Empathy from a St. Jude Family

“You’ve got to help me, Doc. My sinuses are killing me.”

The person speaking was a big, burly, and gruff man in his early forties. He wasn’t the type of guy you’d expect to go to the doctor for sinus trouble, much less be so insistent on me making him better. There was something about him that didn’t particularly agree with me, and the same was true of his wife who sat in the corner. She told me more than I wanted to know about her husband’s runny nose.

I then looked closer at the chart and realized I was talking to a St. Jude family. St. Jude’s is a research hospital in Memphis that treats children from all over the world with various forms of childhood cancer. This past weekend, runners from all over the world descended on Memphis to run in the annual St. Jude Memphis Marathon in support of the lifesaving work done at the hospital. My friend and colleague Antony Sheehan was one of them.

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony's completion medal

Antony and his wife Andrea pose for a drive-by photo with Antony’s completion medal

Often, the children must stay in Memphis for up to two years while being treated, which means the parents are also in Memphis, sometimes unable to work either because they are from another country and do not have a work permit or because their child requires constant attention. In these cases, the Church Health Center takes care of the families of the sick child while they are in town. We don’t charge them for the visit.

I looked up from the clipboard. “So, why is your child at St. Jude?” I asked quietly.

There was a brief pause. Then the wife said, “He has a brain tumor and they just started chemotherapy again yesterday.”

“How long have you been in Memphis?”

“We came 10 months ago and he has been in the hospital almost the whole time.”

I wondered how hard that must be for anyone to endure. Granted, here at the Church Health Center we’re constantly confronted with the difficulties of life. We exist because the world is imperfect.

We’re here for traditionally-underserved patients like Bethany whose mental health struggles haven’t been properly addressed by their healthcare providers in the past. We’re here for patients who have no choice but to leave their native countries in search of a better life. We’re here for patients like Ollie who have been bruised and battered by the currents of life but still give at their own expense.

I’m used to seeing people in pain, but I cannot imagine what it must be like to watch my own child suffer. Listening and empathizing made me more forgiving of my patient’s harried attitude. The rest of their visit was much more congenial and in some unclear way, they no longer had to carry the weight of the world all by themselves.

I believe that we were all put on this Earth to help each other in some way. Sometimes, simply listening and realizing that everyone we encounter is dealing with pain beyond our own experience is enough to make this world a better place.

It is that empathy that makes us more Christ-like.