Priya’s War Story: Taking empathy to a whole new level
Design Researcher Priya Sohoni has a very personal experience in the field and reflects on the challenge in order to find deeper insight about her users.
I’ve never been too comfortable with hospital environments–the smells, sounds, sense of urgency–it makes me nervous. Yet, as an ethnographer should, I’ve attempted to conquer my queasiness and conduct research in medical facilities several times.
In October 2010, I was conducting research in a hospital in the SF Bay Area. I was almost 8 months pregnant with my first child. I was given a choice between spending a day in the ICU, emergency, or the maternity department. I picked maternity – I was excited to be among so many about-to-pop mothers and so many who had just delivered. I thought to myself that for the first time I wasn’t feeling so queasy, I could hear babies in nurseries, we shadowed some nurses as they took the babies for their first immunizations, observed visitors greeting happy families with flowers, balloons, gifts…it seemed so odd that this was a part of a “hospital” environment.
On one of the shadowing sessions, I sat in on a nurse shift change. The nurses went around the table sharing information about the newborns and their mothers and taking careful notes of the patients’ needs and requests. On one of the nurse’s share-outs, she turned to the nursing manager and said: “Baby girl in room 203, born vaginally at 8:02am, had trouble breathing, survived for 53 seconds and then died. Should I register her as a live birth or a still birth?” I felt as if someone had stabbed me in my stomach. So much pain that I clenched my tummy, sat down on the floor and broke into tears. I was expecting a baby girl too, in just over a month. Why was the nurse so unemotional around a baby’s death? The nursing manager noticed me sitting in the corner, brought me a glass of water and apologized that I had to sit through that. She suggested I take some rest in the nurses’ break room. But I wiped my tears away and stuck around.
In a few more minutes, the shift change was over and the nurses dispersed. The nurse from 203 then walked over to another room to check in on another Mother and her baby. I continued shadowing her. She entered the room with a big smile on her face, congratulated the parents and commented on what a beautiful baby they had. She changed the baby, swaddled her, gave the mom her meds and assured her that she could call for help whenever she felt like it. It then struck me that the nurse was concerned about her patients. Deeply concerned. She too had felt the pain that the family in room 203 had gone through. But she had made a commitment to hundreds of other patients, a commitment to take care of them and make them feel better. She could not have done that if she had carried the sorrow with her, out of room 203.
As ethnographers, we get trained to empathize with our respondents. To speak their language, to make them comfortable, to be one of them. I had just witnessed a remarkable new level of empathy that the nurse had. Where I had failed, she carried out each one of her roles with respect and propriety.
I went home that day with a new appreciation for the nursing profession.