July 13, 2024
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PharmD students learn to empathize with others

Empathy workshop helps student pharmacists with their bedside manner

David Gonzalez, who bills himself as a poet, playwright, storyteller, musician, artivist and keynote speaker, helps PharmD students understand the value of developing empathy for others. David Gonzalez, who bills himself as a poet, playwright, storyteller, musician, artivist and keynote speaker, helps PharmD students understand the value of developing empathy for others.
David Gonzalez, who bills himself as a poet, playwright, storyteller, musician, artivist and keynote speaker, helps PharmD students understand the value of developing empathy for others. Image Credit: Naima Kradjian.

Who hasn’t received care from a healthcare provider with a bad “bedside manner” at some point in their life? As a patient, the last thing you want is someone taking care of you who doesn’t seem to care about you as a person. That’s why empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings of others — is a key trait for healthcare providers to possess. And that includes pharmacists.

Learning to develop empathy was the focus of a pilot program for Binghamton University’s third-year pharmacy students in January, when poet, playwright, storyteller, musician, artivist and keynote speaker David Gonzalez spent three hours with them.

The idea sprang from a conversation between School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences Dean Kanneboyina Nagaraju and Naima Kradjian, CEO of the Firehouse Stage in Johnson City and a member of the Dean’s Advisory Council.

The past few years have been extremely hard, especially when you were learning remotely and not with friends, Nagaraju told the students. “I started thinking about how to bring things back to a certain degree of normalcy and one of the ideas that came to me is that human interactions showing compassion and empathy are critical,” he said. “It’s extremely important as you are all preparing to be clinicians and it’s an attribute that you can learn and master with time.”

Kradjian suggested having someone like Gonzalez come and demonstrate to students how it’s possible to develop empathy. “It is important to hear from experts and people with an amount of knowledge as well as the ability to be a storyteller,” Nagaraju added. “That’s why we are having this workshop, which will be participatory and highly interactive.”

For Kradjian’s part, she thanked the students for pursuing their Doctor of Pharmacy degrees. “I recently lost my husband, but if not for my pharmacist, so many things would have been much more awful,” she said. “My pharmacist helped me get through it. You are the person that the patient in distress sees and you’re critical in that moment.”

Gonzalez, who holds a doctorate in music therapy from New York University and taught there for 10 years, now travels the country doing workshops on a range of topics.

Calling himself a storyteller and poet, he has done many years of clinical work in special education. “Social service work has been the wind beneath my wings,” he said. “There is nothing like being in front of someone in need. And I’m calling today’s workshop a playshop because we are going to be using our hearts, minds and bodies, and we will talk to one another as living, breathing, embodied humans.”

Gonzalez started with a story: Two cousins had little farms on either side of the road and worked them hard. They talked about their workday as they returned to their homes each night. One day as they were farming, a strange, colorful figure they’d never seen before passed by them, singing. That night, they discussed the strange person, one noting his funny red hat. The cousin insisted the hat was white. The cousins fought so hard over the color of the hat that they no longer worked their farms and their crops failed. Finally, they go to the town square with shovels and are about to swing at each other when the strange figure returns, wearing his hat. He dances in a circle between them, and they see that the hat is red on one side and white on the other.

“It’s about your point of view,” Gonzalez summarized. “Take the time to get around and see the world from another person’s perspective. This opens the heart.

“Why is that important?” he asked. “Because, as pharmacists, we rely on you and need to trust you and know you have our back.”

Gonzalez then explained that, in 2010, he was given a good news/bad news message. The bad news was that he had a kind of leukemia, but the good news was that there is strong medicine to help him. He held up a small pill. “Every day, with some sense of gratitude, I give praise to the minds and hearts and courage of the people who laid it down so that I can live,” he said. “I’m thankful that you are burning the candle on both ends with your precious one life to enter into this beautiful service [of pharmacy].”

His point? That empathy makes a difference and sharing something personal is what it takes. “It’s about being willing to put the barriers down to connect,” he said. “And to be heard.”

The first activity Gonzalez had the students participate in was also P3 student Danielle Dattler’s favorite. He had students pair off and stand back-to-back. He then asked questions, and if the response was true for the students, they were told to turn around and face their partners.

“Remember, it might not be true for your partner. This is just a reflection on what is true and lets you dare to open your heart,” he said.

Questions included: Did you ever jaywalk? Did you ever use crutches? Did you ever snore? Did you ever borrow something and forget to give it back? Did you ever move away from your family? Did you ever have to put a pet down? Did you ever break a bone? Did you ever lose a job that you really wanted to keep? Did you ever feel like an imposter? Did you ever get rejected by someone you were really into? Were you ever betrayed?

“We got to see everyone else’s responses and I liked that,” Dattler said. “I think the biggest part of it was the questions he asked and the examples he used. He made us think.”

Noticeably, the questions became more personal as Gonzalez progressed.

“We are not alone in our suffering,” he said. “To be empathetic can be smart or dumbass, when you’re pretending or over the top and it’s false. Smart comes out of true, deep, authentic self-knowing. We can always tell when someone is jiving us.”

For student Paul Puccio, the favored activity was mimicking a partner’s movements. “It was simple, but interactive and gave us the ability to try and anticipate the person’s next move.”

Puccio’s takeaway from the workshop? “To essentially stop and think about the other person’s situation,” he said. “Being able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes can give us a greater insight into their current experience. The more empathetic people are to one another, the more likely we are to be able to help someone out of a situation.”

Gonzalez also asked the students to think about how they can cultivate, sustain and build empathy into their lives. “It’s natural,” he said. “We didn’t get this far by being a jerk, but the next phase is the overworked, overused and often misunderstood word of mindfulness. Another word for it is awareness, and we cannot be truly emphatic if we are not aware and conscious of ourselves first.”

“It was a great experience and I’d do it again,” Dattler said. “He was really cool and very interesting. Everyone has had those lectures where you’re just waiting to leave, but he was really engaging.”

Puccio, also, felt the workshop was worthwhile. “As pharmacists, we have direct patient care every day, whether working in a community pharmacy or a hospital setting,” he said. “We have the capability to bring comfort to a patient in times of need and worry. Being empathetic will allow us to connect with the patients further, to gain trust and to employ our knowledge to give the patient the best possible care we can give.”