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Empathy and the darker side of pediatrics

Stanford Medicine Unplugged (formerly SMS Unplugged) is a forum for students to chronicle their experiences in medical school. The student-penned entries appear on Scope once a week during the academic year; the entire blog series can be found in the Stanford Medicine Unplugged category.

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I’m currently just over halfway through my pediatrics rotation, having recently finished up four weeks on inpatient peds and just started my month of outpatient peds.

Before this rotation, when I thought about pediatric medicine, I thought about diagnoses like asthma, croup, foreign body ingestions, and rashes. I never really thought about child abuse, or – as the medical terminology goes – “non-accidental trauma.” And yet, I saw all too much of it this past month on the wards.

Our 6 a.m. sign out one morning went something like, “Patient X, here for NAT, steadily improving, currently in CPS (Child Protective Services) custody, awaiting foster family placement.” When we met this young patient later that same morning, I found a strong mix of emotions stirring inside me: first disbelief, then overwhelming sadness, then – rapidly – anger.

How could ANY parent do this to their baby? This question repeated itself in my mind, over and over and over. I literally could not wrap my head around it. Here is this beautiful, helpless little human being – what could possibly make someone do harm to this child?

I was distressed and distracted throughout rounds that morning, until finally – unable to stay quiet – I confided my thoughts to one of the other members on the medical team, who said: “I know it feels hard to understand. But, take just a moment, and think about it from the parents’ perspective: They are no longer allowed to visit their own child. And they have to explain to literally everyone they know – friends, family, colleagues, other children in the home – why they no longer have their baby.”

Her words stunned me into momentary silence. Never had I thought to empathize with the parents of our NAT patient.

Somehow, I had taken that 2-minute sound bite uttered during morning sign-out and transformed it into a mental battlefield, with the health-care team on one side, fighting valiantly to protect this child, and the parents on the other, a medical story of “good” vs. “evil.” But my fellow team member was right: This situation was awful all around. These parents no longer had a child, the child no longer had parents, and sometimes – if the patient had siblings – the siblings too were taken into CPS custody.

This experience taught me how absolutely vital it is to find ways to empathize with every patient and every family, no matter what the circumstances. 

I feel like this is particularly relevant in the inpatient setting, where we see patients for days – which sometimes become weeks and months – at a time. We connect with our patients: They’re often the first people we see when we get into the hospital and the last ones we see when we leave. We feel like we know all about them, about their families, about their values. But we don’t.

We’re witnessing this small window of their lives that has brought them to the hospital. And as easy as it is sometimes to ask question and judge – particularly in the setting of something as sensitive as child abuse – it’s not our place to do so.

Hamsika Chandrasekar is a third-year student at Stanford’s medical school. She has an interest in medical education and pediatrics. 

Photo by 3rdparty

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