Compassion as a Healing Tool

This is a reprint from INFUSION MAGAZINE (September/October 2011 Volume 17 Number 5)


A Conversation with Allison Massari

Allison Massari clearly understands health care intimately and is also familiar with infusion treatments, but she is not a provider, payer or a regulator. The award winning painter and sculptor—turned speaker and coach—experienced firsthand the critical value of health care delivered with empathy and support. Burned alive in a fire caused by a head‐on auto collision 12 years ago, followed by a traumatic brain injury from a second high‐speed car accident just two years later, Massari now delivers the message to providers that kindness and compassion have a direct impact on patient care and positive clinical outcomes.

Drawing on her personal experiences with empathic, devoted health care providers (including 40 days in a burn unit, followed by additional years recovering), Massari spoke to INFUSION about how alternate-site infusion providers can be more self-aware and person-centered in their interactions with patients in an effort to support their needs emotionally, as well as physically.

Q. In your speaking work, whom do you typically address and what do your topics usually involve?

A. My primary audiences are health care workers, providers, and nonprofits. I am passionate about helping health care workers feel valued and motivated in the face of understaffing and fatigue. My mission is to inspire people to find success and happiness in tough times; and to refine a deeper understanding of the necessity for outstanding patient-centered care. Above all, my commitment is to alleviate human suffering.

Q. What about your story most opens your audiences’ eyes to something new? What do they seem to walk away with?

A. Again and again I’m told that my stories inspire people to reclaim their passion for their life’s work in health care. I’m told that they have a completely renewed willingness to keep giving even when a patient is non-responsive or unkind. I can’t tell you how many people run up to me after my keynotes jumping up and down with excitement. It’s awesome. They feel appreciated in such a deep way, and it gives them more energy for their work.

When I talk about compassionate patient-centered care, I illustrate through stories, what can go right and wrong when caring for a patient. It’s powerful for the audience to hear the impact they can have (positive or negative) from a moment with someone. Many times audience members have expressed to me a deepened commitment to be more aware, and an eagerness to do more simple compassionate things like holding a patient’s hand. That warms my heart to no end. We cannot underestimate the role human connection plays in healing.

Q. What can alternate-site infusion clinicians (or others working in our field) do to support patients emotionally?

A. Love and compassion heal the places medicine cannot touch. That ability of being present fully with someone is powerful. It eases so much pain. You can shower someone with kindness and compassion in three seconds, for those times you are pressed on the job.

Just stopping to touch someone on the shoulder or arm and look at them lovingly is profound. These things calm the whole nervous system. Compassion is an absolute healing tool and heavily underestimated. I have never forgotten a single moment that was given to me like this by health care professionals—ever. It’s embedded into my memory.

Q. What should they never do (what is not supportive)?

A. This topic is so important, I could do a whole afternoon seminar on it. As difficult as it is to address, we all know that in every profession people sometimes struggle with how to approach others. Many times, bad things happen when health care workers are not aware, or not paying attention. It’s critical to work hard to remove judgments of people or any assumptions. Always assume that you don’t know someone’s story. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt.

Quick tips: Don’t make jokes about someone’s weight or appearance. Be extremely compassionate with someone learning to use a bedpan. When a patient is coming out of anesthesia, they can still hear you.

People who are injured or sick are at their most vulnerable and are looking to health care professionals especially for care, respect, and kindness.

Q. How can health care professionals in alternate-site infusion, who are typically compassionate at-heart but not necessarily experts on mental health, be more sensitive to the needs of patients?

A. Anyone with a compassionate heart is already capable of being sensitive to the needs of patients. It’s important to trust yourself. People feel your compassion and care even without you saying a word. You can communicate it with a kind look in your eyes, or in the gentleness you use to move a patient to get them ready for a procedure.

Let your heart be open and seen by your patients. It’s not necessarily about saying the right words. Just love them. Listen to them. Ask what they need. They will never forget you.

Q. So many times, people don’t act because they are unsure what to do, or afraid of upsetting the patient. How should they go about reaching out?

A. It’s always healthy to monitor a situation or to pause before speaking if you are unsure of how you will be received. Beyond that, remember that compassion never withholds itself. Compassion moves out and forward even at the risk of looking a bit foolish. I could always feel when health care workers were trying to be kind, even if they stumbled on their words a bit.

If you are afraid to reach out, just smile, touch their hand, offer them a glass of water or sit with them. The simple things work extremely well.

Q. What about family members?  With so many things that could be going on with them (trying to be brave, fear, grief, anger, burnout), in your experience, when and how have good health care people supported them?

A. This is another big topic. Health care workers already have an awesome responsibility with the patient. In my situation, they were able to still be there for my family with kind words and moral support. However, I encourage people to learn more about compassion fatigue, or secondary traumatic stress. Both health care workers and families suffer from emotional and physical burdens embedded within a health care crisis. Over time, they may develop symptoms of depression, stress, and trauma.

Q.Throughout your experience, did you or your family ever find emotional support in an unexpected way—did anyone on your care team surprise you?

A. The most dramatic example was when my physical therapist took me out skiing on her day off. I was 10 months into my rehabilitation. I still had open wounds on my body and staples in my back. It was very difficult to move. I felt I had been assigned to a certain life and I was deeply depressed. The next thing I knew I was flying down the Vail Colorado mountaintop. That experience shifted my entire paradigm. I came alive that day. I will forever be grateful for her generosity.

Allison Massari was named the “2011 #1 Rising Star in Speaking by the National Speakers Association.” 

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