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Boston Strong

Peter L. Slavin and David F. Torchiana discuss the Boston Marathon bombings and empathic care.

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It was mid-afternoon, April 15, Marathon Monday, and we were tweaking this issue of Proto, readying it for the printer. But then everything changed. Slightly more than a mile away on Boylston Street in Boston’s Back Bay, two crude bombs exploded 12 seconds apart, killing 3 people and injuring more than 200. As the world watched this wretched scene unfold, staff in hospitals around the city sprang into action, preparing emergency rooms, operating rooms and inpatient units.

Barely more than a mile from the finish line, Massachusetts General Hospital felt the impact of the blasts closely and personally. Many members of the MGH family had run the race, volunteered along the route or helped staff the medical tents. Amid terror and uncertainty about the safety of family and friends, and with ambulance after ambulance screaming to our door, staff members continued doing their jobs, working tirelessly to save lives and provide comfort and support to patients, family members, friends and one another. The entire Boston medical community responded with determination, persistence and compassion.

Fittingly, this issue of Proto includes a story about compassion and empathy. In extraordinary circumstances like the Marathon bombings as well as in everyday practice, clinicians interact with patients and families at their most vulnerable—anxious, in pain, confused or grief-stricken. And this is when empathic care, built on trust and respect, makes all the difference. It can lead to improved treatment outcomes, reduced costs, higher patient satisfaction, better adherence to therapies and greater trust in physicians—all crucial themes in our national health care discussion.

One leading advocate for empathy is the Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare, founded by Kenneth B. Schwartz, a health care attorney who died at age 40 from advanced lung cancer. Ken wrote powerfully about his experience as a patient at MGH, describing how caregivers’ simplest acts—holding his hand, sharing family stories—“made the unbearable bearable.” The organization that bears Ken’s name has evolved and expanded over the past 18 years, spreading its message about the essentialness of an open and trusting relationship between patients and their caregivers.

The case for compassion and empathy is powerful. Whatever changes we make to our health care system, no matter what unforeseen tragedies may test our clinical and empathic competencies, we owe it to our patients to support their psychological, emotional and social needs as we tend to their physical concerns. Basic humanity must continue to be our guidepost. Indeed, it is compassion and empathy pouring into Boston from around the world that is helping to heal the spirit of this city—shaken, yet still strong.

Peter L. Slavin, M.D.
Massachusetts General Hospital
David F. Torchiana, M.D.
CEO and Chairman
Massachusetts General Physicians
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