“It is unfortunate that for some, kindness is an unwarranted expenditure, compassion an avoidable weakness, and love an unnecessary gamble” (Wayne Gerard Trotman)
An orthopaedic surgeon, Bill, finally finished his last surgery well into the evening on that Friday and just wanted to get back home to be with his family, possibly go out for a relaxing dinner followed by an early night. He was exhausted. He knew he was on call over the weekend but hoped it would be an uneventful one. The family settled down to eat at a favourite restaurant and Bill started relaxing, laughing with the children and his wife as they related the day’s events to each other. Everyone seemed to have had a good day.
As supper was nearing completion, Bill got the inevitable call from the hospital – a child had broken his wrist and was in pain. Bill paid the restaurant, took the family home, and proceeded swiftly to the emergency rooms. The child, wearing Captain Marvel pyjamas, was lying in his father’s arms, whimpering. Bill noticed the wrist bent back by a number of degrees, introduced himself to the family and asked the boy: “What happened?” The little boy did not answer, but rather shrank more deeply into his father’s arms.
Bill was impatient – he knew what needed to be done and how long it would take, so he gave up speaking to the boy and summoned a radiology technician to take the necessary X-rays. Lucy came in and, bending down to the height of the little boy, asked him: “Oh dear, Jimmy, did you hurt your arm, sweetheart?” With tears in his eyes, Jimmy looked up and answered: “I fell out of a tree in our garden.” “Oh my,” answered Lucy. “Okay, I am going to take a picture of your arm. Would you like a picture of Captain Marvel too?” Jimmy nodded his head. With the help of the father, Lucy carefully placed Jimmy on a bed and wheeled him off to the radiology department, chatting to him about Captain Marvel as they went down the corridor.
While Bill waited for the X-ray results, he arranged for the operating room to be prepared and the anaesthetist to be present. The X-rays showed a badly displaced fracture, but Jimmy didn’t care – he was holding and adoring a grey film silhouette of Captain Marvel in his good hand. Once Jimmy had been put to sleep, Bill efficiently applied traction to the arm, stretching the fracture, lifted an end of the broken bones with his thumb and popped the bones back into place. The reduction was perfect, and he proceeded to put the wrist into a cast. Bill was proficient – he prided himself in his ability to fix that which is broken. After a further X-ray to check the results, the repair job was complete, and Jimmy was awakened. Lucy came in and sat down to talk to the little boy. After some time and leaving Jimmy beaming with his Captain Marvel picture, she stood up and made her way to a table alongside the one where Bill was having a cup of coffee.
Bill lent over and asked Lucy: “How did you manage to get the little boy to talk to you?” Lucy replied somewhat shyly: “By treating him as if he is your own child.” Bill gulped on his coffee as tears came to his eyes – he had been so caught up in being efficient and professional that he had missed being human. He had not demonstrated compassion or care – he had just done his job. His focus was on the orthopaedic problem and not the person.
Efficiency with people is usually ineffective. Expressions of empathy, on the other hand, reach out to the heart and bring true healing. Christopher Morley humorously concludes: “No one appreciates the very special genius of your conversation as a dog does. If you chat with him a while, gradually building up the argument and the intonation, he relishes it so that he will roll all around the floor, lie on his back kicking and groaning with joyous worship. Very few wives are so affected.”