July 12, 2020

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Healing through empathy

Musing on the importance of kindness proves to be just what the doctor ordered

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/4/2018 (806 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

How many of us have sat quivering in a medical office while a disturbing diagnosis is being delivered in a blunt, non-empathetic way by a physician oblivious to the healing power of a positive mindset?

Well, here’s a book to restore our faith — The Power of Kindness, authored by a practising emergency-room doctor who acknowledges the importance of empathy and kindness in medicine, and decides to take action to increase his own quotient.

Brian Goldman’s latest book is the result of a two-year quest to understand more fully the makings of kindness. (Laura Arsie photo) </p>

Brian Goldman’s latest book is the result of a two-year quest to understand more fully the makings of kindness. (Laura Arsie photo)

Brian Goldman has been an emergency-room physician at Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital for more than 30 years, dutifully tending to the pain and trauma in other people’s lives. He is also the host of the popular CBC Radio show White Coat, Black Art, where he explores current medical topics from a physician’s perspective.

In his spare time, he has authored two other books — 2010’s The Night Shift and 2014’s The Secret Language of Doctors. In all, Goldman has become a trusted, balanced voice on issues confronting health-care providers in this country.

His book opens with a mea culpa manifesto — there have been times when, although he has acted competently as a doctor, he has not been kind or empathetic. That admission forces him to see himself as others have experienced him: "selfish, unempathetic and unkind."

This realization launches him on a two-year quest to understand more fully the makings of kindness.

Initially, he has his own kindness quotient measured in a brain scan and personality tests — doing some quivering of his own when he gets the results.

He then turns to the world beyond medical haunts to learn from some of the "kindest and most empathetic people on the planet."

Some of those he connects with include a woman on the streets of Sao Paulo who befriends homeless people, a bar owner in New York who offers ongoing refuge to those affected by 9/11, a local Tim Hortons franchisee who chooses to hire staff with mental disabilities and a therapist in a nursing home in Pennsylvania who intuits what people with dementia need in order to exist in a calm, non-medicated state.

Goldman is a consummate storyteller with a smooth, accessible style. The backstories of these people and their uber-altruism make for easy reading and a refreshing view of the kindness awash in the world.

But the most striking part of his account is his recounting of fascinating details about empathy research in the fields of neuroscience, virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence.

For example, cognitive neuroscientists posit there’s an empathetic "turn-off" switch in the brain circuits of many health-care professionals when encountering the pain of others.

The next step is to determine if that’s innate or acquired in order to handle their jobs. Innovators, high in emotional intelligence (EQ) themselves, have created VR films fostering empathy by enabling viewers to experience the reality of a refugee camp or a residential school from a child’s perspective.

But most remarkable is the section on the empathy-savvy Japanese scientists who have unlocked "empathy’s secrets" and imprinted that function into machines.

These androids can perceive emotional states and converse with and provide companionship for humans.

So effective is the human-machine connection that Goldman finds himself worrying about hurting the feelings of ERICA, an android he’s conversing with.

Now, it’s likely unkind to quibble about a book on kindness… but there is a missed opportunity at the end.

Initially, Goldman states he wants to increase his kindness/empathetic quotient. Does he apply what he has learned? Has he become a more empathetic ER physician, a kinder, less self-motivated interviewer on his radio show? We aren’t told. Rather, the ending of an otherwise substantive book is surprisingly facile, and also puzzling because he seems to end up where he might have started.

Still, Goldman’s book is well worth reading. He makes personal and accessible what can appear aloof and inaccessible — the inside of a doctor’s mind and of a doctor’s world.

He also leaves us with hope that should we have to face disturbing medical test results, the attending physician will have read his book and been inspired to be especially kind when delivering those results.

Marjorie Anderson works as an editor and teacher of creative writing.

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