Empathy and Trauma

Children’s Hospitals & Me

I’ve been doing a lot of work at a local children’s hospital recently, and there’s a lot of things there that make me think. I wanted to take some time and write about it since I’ve been there for a few months now, and I think I have a better handle on why I’m so interested in it.

Inpatients and Empathy

While at the hospital, I spend a fair amount of time with inpatients in their rooms. I’m not going to get into the details of it, but suffice it to say that I play video games a form of ‘play therapy’.

Definition Check!

Outpatients are folks who come to the hospital and are discharged that day.

Inpatients are folks who have to stay in the hospital for longer periods of time, anywhere from a day or two to months or years.

As part of my work, I spend a lot of time wandering the hospital, from ward to ward, hallway to hallway, elevator to elevator. It’s the things that I see on these walks that stand out to me the most, because the things that I see here are the things that are the most unexplained.

NO WHITE COATS, a door sign proclaims. It’s easier to understand this as threatening from my vantage point. Also thankfully, it’s not something I have to worry about; no coats of any kind for me while on the floors.

NO MEN reads a sign on a door with the shutters pulled tightly closed. That sign applies to me, and I cannot help but wonder what is behind that door as I walk past. Each room is filled with pain, and if I’m lucky I’ll be able to distract them from it for a while. But not this room. I walk on.

NO RUNNING WATER reads another. Another room that’s not on my list, but representative of a horror I can only imagine. In this case, it’s not that the room is lacking a functional sink; rather, any liquids must be brought in after being drawn from somewhere else.

Each sign is placed with care and concern. Each sign tells its own story, and though I don’t know the details, the signs themselves tell enough.

After my shift, sometimes I sit in my car and think about the signs I’ve seen that day. The signs I didn’t know needed to be signs. The signs I hadn’t thought needed to be signs; am I just so close-minded that I assumed no one would have these experiences? Or am I broadening my horizons with each sign I see?

The Green Heart Kids

What do you do when you have a patient that needs to hide? I don’t mean ‘hide from the nurse’, though that’s a game that many inpatients play at least a few times. I mean, hide from the media. Hide from an abusive parent. Hide from the world.

Enter the Green Hearts1. A designation that is attached to a name in the patient system, it means one very simple thing: this patient does not exist. We’ve never heard of them. They’re not here. Don’t know what you’re talking about. No one by that name here. If you’ve never thought about this before, I want you to stop and ponder for a minute. Think about the kinds of circumstances that could necessitate hiding a child away so they can receive medical care. Think about what the green heart means.

I work with Green Heart kids almost every week, and for the most part, they’re just normal kids. Kids with cancer. Kids with heart problems. Gastrointestinal problems. But still kids.

Most of the reason it’s stuck with me is that I just never thought that a process like this existed. That there could be a need for such a process. Is that my privilege speaking? Most likely, but every week I learn a little more.

The Hallways

The hallways of a children’s hospital are a special place to be, specifically because they aren’t tucked away like the rooms are. The rooms are about the kids – the hallways are about the parents.

Frantic blinking of trying to hold back tears for the billionth time.

Arguments about money.

Talking to a nurse about end of life care.

Asking if there’s a way to make the next procedure less painful.

Calls to family.

The parents need just as much emotional support as the kids do, but I can’t give it. There are programs for them, too – through the library and through other things, the adults do have someone to talk to. But the hallway is their church; it hears their prayers. It hears the muffled sobs. It hears what they don’t want anyone else to hear. And sometimes, so do I.


There’s no real closing here. It’s just a rambling collection of thoughts that have been bounding around in my head for the past few months. Things that I never thought about, things that are the bread and butter of others stronger than I. For example, I was sitting with a burn patient and listening as they told the nurse about how it involved an accidental fall into a fire pit. The nurse nodded sagely and said, “Lucky it’s just your arm. The younger ones usually go in headfirst.”

There’s so much suffering. If I’m lucky, I can distract them for a while. That’s my role, and I’d like to think I’m good at it. One kid at a time. One smile at a time. Just gotta get better at putting myself in their shoes.

  1. They aren’t green hearts. The actual designation is different, but I’m calling them green hearts for this post. ↩︎