As I entered my dietetic internship, I felt confident about my command of the nutritional information I needed to give to clients. But did I have empathy? Did I have the ability to share another person’s feelings? Which begs the questions: Do nutrition students learn empathy in undergrad? Should we?
Having to talk with a family whose loved one was dying made me dig deep. Everyone has their own opinions about their loved ones and the care they should be receiving. As I walked down the hallway to the patient's room, I felt an internal struggle of what I would say to the family. I was nervous. What would they say to me? Would I want to talk with someone about food if my loved one was struggling for every breath? Was it even OK for me to be in this very private, intimate place?
My preceptor left me to figure out how to handle this situation on my own, so all I could do was face the music and enter the room. As I did, I tried to put myself in their place.
As months have passed, I have come to realize that this experience has helped mold me into the dietitian that I want to become. Patients' struggles are real. I have the knowledge to help them along their journey, but I must pass my information on in an empathetic way to help them reach their goals. And for some patients such as that palliative care patient I saw, the ultimate goal may not be nutritional. I might just need to be there to give a kind word.
Empathy cannot be taught in a classroom setting; it can be learned in the classroom of life, but only if you are willing to learn its sometimes difficult lessons. I believe it is a necessary component for my practice as a dietitian, whether clinical or community.
Empathy — is it part of your scope of practice?