Boston Stronger -- Empathy in Action

It was an odd feeling -- walking into Massachusetts General Hospital just days after the Boston Marathon bombings had uprooted our hospital and challenged our staff to the core of their training and their emotional strength. But our lives, however altered, had to continue. In my case, I was to lead an inter-hospital seminar with medical, surgical and psychiatry interns at an annual offsite retreat -- bright young men and women preparing for promising futures in medicine, and our workshop happened to focus on empathy, an essential component of not just the medical profession, but also our collective humanity.

As is customary in my workshop, I asked the interns to tell each other a minute-long story of some emotional significance. The task is meant to elicit empathy from our peers, to demonstrate how we convey caring through nonverbal signals, and to remind these burgeoning physicians how vital compassion is to our profession and our interactions with patients, especially considering the fact that research shows a marked decline in empathy that beings in the third-year of medical school.

This particular workshop, however, was different from the past I've conducted. The interns -- many of whom had been working at the hospital on the afternoon of the bombings -- shared stories of that harrowing day. An intern described how she was one of the first people the injured victims faced -- one of whom was an 18 year-old individual gearing up for dance school. Shortly after arriving at the hospital, the patient had to have both legs amputated. Another spoke of taking the shoes off a victim, and the patient's entire leg coming off.

Another story was of another patient -- a woman who had lost her foot in the bombings. This woman had spent months waiting on her boyfriend, an army officer in Afghanistan, who returned to Boston healthy and whole only to find her the victim of a heinous attack on her home soil.

I was just as struck by these stories as the others hearing them for the first time. This is the hallmark of our humanity -- we are changed by other people and by their stories. And if there is one lesson we can extract from this disaster, it's that empathy -- the capacity to understand other individuals' emotions -- is a powerful force that spurs us from our complacent couches and TV sets and into action. The human brain is hard-wired for empathy; in situations like this, we understand why. Helping those who suffer diminishes both their pain, and ours, preserving our fellow humans, ourselves and our species. If we, in turn, become distressed and overwhelmed by the pain of others, we must seek help for ourselves.

Empathy is the reason many individuals chose to participate in the 2013 Boston Marathon; many running for charities, for soldiers wounded in war, for friends facing as-yet incurable diseases, for hope. And, for these interns, empathy for the innocent wounded individuals of the Boston Marathon bombings helped remind them why they wanted to be physicians in the first place -- to help each other.

To help each other. Like Carlos Arredondo, the cowboy hat-donning hero. Like Boston locals, who turned out to donate blood amid the chaos and uncertainty. Like the countless people around the country and the world whose donations to the One Fund Boston will help those most affected by the bombings.

To help each other. That's what life is about, right? That's why our human species has persevered over time -- our ability to understand and feel the pain of someone else, which in turn motivates us to reach out time and time again.

Scientifically, empathy is a mutable thing -- it can be decreased or increased, taught and learned. And without a doubt, that unforgettable afternoon was one of those heightened moments where we all swelled with emotion over the news footage, over photographs, over the relief of knowing our dear ones were safe, and the devastation of hearing bad news.

But empathy -- our collective concern for each other, our ability to relate -- is why Boston will bounce back. Life does indeed go on. And with it, the greater understanding of one another, and the hope that we're all the stronger for it.

Helen Riess, M.D. is associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Empathy and Relational Science Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. She co-founded Empathetics, LLC, an empathy education company.