Compassion is a verb – SaskEthics reflection

By Dr. Mary Heilman, CHAS Bioethicist

Dr. Mary Heilman, PhD,
CHAS Bioethecist

[Reprint of SaskEthics, an Ethics Newsletter for Catholic Healthcare Organizations in Saskatchewan, November/December 2019]

This year’s annual convention of the Catholic Health Association of Saskatchewan (CHAS) provided an opportunity for networking, learning for the head, and learning for the heart.

This should come as no surprise to those of you who have attended a CHAS Convention before, but I thought it worth mentioning in case we start taking these opportunities for granted. There were many important takeaways from the convention, but the one that I think is most important for our understanding of ethics came from keynote presenter Dr. Shane Sinclair’s research into compassion. To summarize his work in short: Compassion is a verb.

Over the course of several studies, Dr. Sinclair and his team have interviewed patients and healthcare professionals to learn more about what the word ‘compassion’ means. They found that compassion is more than a feeling; it is an action that we take when we enter into the suffering of another person.

According to Sinclair’s research team, compassion can only exist in the space between two people. One person (usually the patient in a hospital setting), brings their suffering, while the other (e.g., the healthcare professional) brings a virtuous intent. In this context ‘virtuous’ does not just mean being nice or having a professional demeanor.

Dr. Sinclair stressed that the patients involved had amazing radar for distinguishing true compassion from superficial kindness. For them, a compassionate healthcare professional needed to be present to the person they were caring for. The two persons needed to come to know each other to find ways to alleviate suffering.

Consider for example, a food and nutrition staff member, Jake, who takes a tray of food to a patient, Sam. Jake could drop off the tray without saying a word, or he could open himself to the opportunity to engage with Sam. If Sam seems interested in talking, then Jake’s next action will be largely motivated by his personal values and his willingness to be present to Sam. Jake needs to begin here, with a desire to know Sam better before he can be compassionate. Once he learns about Sam’s likes and dislikes, hopes and fears, Jake will have the opportunity to be compassionate. This might mean heating up Sam’s water so his tea is more enjoyable, or helping him fill out his meals for the next day.

Unfortunately it is not always easy to act compassionately. What barriers to compassion exist for your team? What things help you to act compassionately? How can you help your team to find the time and space to alleviate the suffering of others?