As healthcare providers people come to us in their most frightening and vulnerable times of there lives. They are sometimes suddenly unable to do things they could do before and are coming to us for advice. They hope we will be able to help them return to their normal lives.

In the process of helping patients, they appreciate when we can sympathize with them, but often it is hard to truly empathize with them. Sympathy is the ability to feel compassion for another’s suffering, empathy is the ability to truly relate to another’s suffering. While it would be nice for us to have empathy for our patients, we don’t want to actually experience everything we treat or diagnose. For the most part we, as healthcare providers, tend to be a healthy bunch. Hopefully we take our own advice and eat well, exercise regularly and take medications correctly which, in turn helps keep us healthy.

This past week and a half I had the good fortune of being able to experience life with a handicap knowing full well that it would be over in a few days. Last weekend my sinuses became so congested that I began to feel intense pain in both ears and a few hours later the pain in the left ear became more and more intense and suddenly stopped when I felt some fluid running out my ear. My eardrum had ruptured. Later that night the other ear drum ruptured. With two ruptured ear drums, I could barely hear anything. I would spend the next several days with about 75% hearing loss and it slowly came back over the next few days. As I write this, I am back to about 80% hearing 10 days after the first rupture but I got to experience life without being able to hear for a week.

For those of you who know me, I am a musician as well as a physician so my hearing is fairly refined. To not be able to hear music clearly was bad enough, but to not hear my kids talking to me, to have to look at people and read their lips in order to understand them, to go to a concert with my wife and feel the music without clearly hearing it, were even worse. When my wife get frustrated because I had to ask her to repeat herself over and over, it was humbling and I began to get more frustrates. When an elderly patient laugh because my hearing was worse than his and offer me one of his hearing aids I laughed but became a little mortified. It was a very humbling experience and I could literally understand the feeling of despair and isolation that would come with severe hearing loss. But it was at this point that I began to feel grateful.

It is rarely when we can experience a life changing event that truly makes us disabled and, because it was hearing-related, there wasn’t the outside sympathy that crutches or a wheel chair might bring with it. I could feel what some of my patients might be feeling when their condition makes them isolated and takes away some of their freedoms. But I had the advantage of knowing that it was a very temporary situation. I was blessed to learn what it is to be handicapped but also know that it was temporary. I wish the blessing of a temporary disability on everyone who cares for others. I know my experience will make me a more compassionate and empathetic provider and it will make me appreciate my health even more.

I would love to hear from those of you who have experienced a temporary handicap of some sort or another. How did it change your perspective? How did you cope with it?
Dr. Jason Strandberg

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