Empathy in the ICU

Empathy. It’s sympathy with a personal touch. And it’s something that, when mastered, can ease suffering.

ICU nurse focuses on empathy to help patients 

As an ICU nurse at Henry Ford Macomb Hospital, Cynthia Ferguson has countless opportunities to hone her empathetic approach. Still, those opportunities can also create stress for her if she does not take care of herself. She has found the AIDET +1 model to be helpful in guiding her in what she already practiced.

“Honestly, becoming more conscious of using AIDET has helped with stressful situations,” says Cynthia, who has been an RN for 10 years. “I feel like I've been using the steps of AIDET throughout my practice. It assists with communicating with patients and families, especially in the ICU when they are under the most stress and are afraid. Acknowledging feelings, discussing and providing explanations are a guide through these stressful situations. These steps also assist the medical staff from absorbing stress themselves.

“As nurse you have to take care of yourself also to help de-stress. I take a Pilates class and I love to ride my bike in nice summer weather.”

The conscious awareness of potential accumulating stress levels is vital to maintaining the energy needed to complete job tasks, work with patients and to fully be there for the families. And in the ICU, stress can build quickly, considering the intensity of situations with patients. Cynthia has found ways to manage this while still being emotionally available for patients and their families.

“I've found the easiest way to help family members is to be empathetic to their situation and try to put myself in their shoes,” she says. “Having spent time with my own loved ones in an intensive care unit, I can understand how difficult it is to be the family members on the other side of the bed. In many cases, families have to make difficult decisions in a short period of time. This can result in someone experiencing multiple feelings simultaneously — such as anger, sadness, grief — and the nurse who is at the bedside for twelve hours at time is stable source for them to speak with. Allowing them to relinquish those feelings and having an ear to listen can mean all the difference in the world to patients’ family members.”

Part of empathy is also encouraging patients and their family members to have a voice in their care. Cynthia makes recommendations to them, such as keeping a journal of questions, thoughts and ideas. By being an active part of the treatment and care, patients and their family members feel more empowered … and less helpless.

“People think of questions to ask the physician, but because they are under stress, they forget them” Cynthia says. “Then, when the team makes the rounds, they can’t remember their questions. I always strive to help my patients and families feel as comfortable as they can during their stay, and offering suggestions like this seems to help.”

 In all, the world of ICU seems to be a perfect fit for Cynthia on a personal and professional level.

 “I enjoy the increased pace and adrenaline of the ICU,” she adds. “As a nurse, you're an integral part of the multidisciplinary team and always critically thinking while providing care.”