Monday, August 12, 2013


Walk a mile in my shoes

"Walk a mile in my shoes."   This saying means a person should try to understand someone else's situation before judging or criticizing.  How many times have we been guilty of judging someone else's actions without having an awareness of that person's experience?
My husband has asthma and has used inhalers for many years. It seemed so easy. I taught patients how to use inhalers and couldn’t really understand why they couldn’t coordinate inhaling and depressing the canister at the same time.  Then I became ill with pneumonia and an inhaler was prescribed for me.  It wasn’t so easy!  My first dozen inhalations ended up on my tongue rather than inhaled into my lungs.  It took a lot of practice to get it right.

When I was a home care nurse I remember suggesting to a 90-year-old woman to join the local senior center and get active even though she was experiencing some incontinence issues.  I didn’t know why she didn’t take my well-intentioned advice.

I decided to do an experiment: I wore an incontinence brief under my clothes. It wasn’t as comfortable as I thought. Returning for a home visit, I brought up the subject again of getting out and socializing at the senior center. She replied, “I couldn’t wear one of those – everyone would know.”  That’s when I showed her that I was wearing an incontinence brief, and she had been totally unaware of it.  She laughed, but was convinced and gave it a try.

Recently I became impatient with my 91-year-old mother when she stopped her hobby of watercolor painting due to macular degeneration.  She insisted her vision had declined significantly, and the struggle to see made painting an ordeal rather than an enjoyable pursuit. I didn’t understand what it was like for her until I smeared petroleum jelly on my glasses then tried to read.  It really wasn’t fun, and I could finally empathize.

When I had an ear infection recently, I was shocked at how painful it was. I was ashamed when I recalled how I thought my kids were being overly dramatic when they complained about how much it hurt when them themselves had an ear infection.

Health care workers usually become much more sensitive and empathetic after they experience an illness and hospitalization. 

When I was hospitalized for a short time, I was surprised at how much commotion there is during the day, and even at night.  I never realized how disturbing the constant interruptions are. 

Even though I know the routine tasks of the hospital staff are essential, they don’t make for a restful experience. Someone was constantly coming in my room to take vital signs, assess pain, ask questions, administer medications, deliver or retrieve the food trays, clean the room, check my IV, take blood, or ask for a urine specimen.  You can rest assured that after my hospitalization experience I was much more cognizant of the need to minimize the number of interruptions to my patients because I had “walked a mile in their shoes.” 

The late Roger Ebert once said, “I believe empathy is the most essential quality of civilization.” I couldn’t agree more.

Alice Facente is a community education nurse for the Backus Health System. To comment on this column or others, visit the Healthy Living blog at or e-mail Ms. Facente or any of the Healthy Living columnists at

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