Empathy and the Mind-Body Problem (3)

How does empathy help me in understanding a patient’s stress illness?  The diagnostic process in stress illness is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when you:

  • Do not have the completed picture as a guide
  • Receive the pieces in random order
  • Do not have all the pieces

Empathy supplies the missing pieces and helps you create the final picture.  A good example is the story of Carla, the fifth story from Chapter 4 in my book, and one of my most difficult diagnoses.  I’ll simplify her story slightly and say she was 24, six months pregnant and hospitalized because of vomiting.  Tests showed no evidence of organ disease that would explain her illness.

The first step was to learn the chronology of her illness: the vomiting had occurred off and on for seven years and daily for the last three weeks.  Next I wanted to learn about her childhood which consisted of being raised by her father from an early age due to divorce.  Mother lived twenty miles away but had zero contact.  At age 17 and unmarried, Carla had a son whom she gave up for adoption with no knowledge of his current whereabouts.  Her son’s father was now Carla’s husband.  As she spoke she made several references to “the Lord” as a key influence in her life as a Christian.  Can you use empathy to see how all this fits together to produce a severe illness?  I was still learning about stress illness when I met Carla and the process took me several weeks.  More in the next post.

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