Building Empathy for Parkinson’s

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”  Ernest Hemingway

“To perceive is to suffer.”  Aristotle

Introduction: The loss of dopamine-producing neurons in the mid-brain leads to Parkinson’s disease, which usually presents with motor dysfunction of different degrees of progression from person-to-person.  This post explores the differences between empathy and sympathy, and describes a new device that allows one to actually experience a person-with-Parkinson’s tremor; surely providing much empathy from the experience.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”  Theodore Roosevelt

A lesson learned from the classic rock opera “Tommy” by The Who: The plot of the 1969 rock opera “Tommy” begins with Tommy’s parents.  His father, Captain Walker, fought in World War II but it is assumed he died. However, Captain Walker is alive and returns home to his wife and Tommy. Believing her husband to be dead, Mrs. Walker has a new lover.  Captain Walker accidentally kills the lover, in the presence of Tommy. Tommy is traumatized by what he witnessed; he becomes catatonic.  Three musical examples: Go to the Mirror (listen here) Tommy sings “See me, me, feel me, touch me, heal me / See me, feel me, touch me, heal me.” Tommy’s father sings “I often wonder what he is feeling / Has he ever heard a word I’ve said? / Look at him in the mirror dreaming / What is happening in his head?” In Tommy Can You See Me? (listen here)  his mother sings “Tommy can you hear me? / Can you feel me near you? /  Tommy can you feel me / Can I help to cheer you.” In See Me, Feel Me (listen here) Tommy sings “See me, feel me, touch me, heal me / See me, feel me, touch me, heal me / See me, feel me, touch me, heal me / See me, feel me, touch me, heal me / Listening to you, I get the music / Gazing at you, I get the heat / Following you, I climb the mountain / I get excitement at your feet.” Hopefully, you can empathize, not sympathize, with Tommy and the life-struggles he encounters and overcomes in this rock opera.

“for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” Milan Kundera

*Empathy vs. sympathy: Empathy means you have the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.  By contrast, sympathy means feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune (https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/empathy). Yes, it sucks to have a chronically-progressing neurodegenerative disorder like Parkinson’s. But it could be worse, really.

Empathy.  What a great word.  Try to be empathetic to me; you don’t have to become one with me, just strive to understand how I’m feeling.  Our bond will surely strengthen.  You may not be able to exactly feel what I’m feeling, but just trying says much to you, your inner processing, the soul of your humanity.

Please don’t pity me, that reduces the feelings between us.  Please don’t have sorrow or sadness for me, it weakens our ties. If you give me sympathy, you’ll never truly be able to grasp the extent and meaning of my Parkinson’s.  Parkinson’s is not my friend; however, having your friendship and understanding (empathy) instead of your pity (sympathy) will give me strength and help me deal on a more positive-front with this unrelenting disorder.

*This post is dedicated to the first-year medical students at the UNC School of Medicine. On Friday, May 5, I had the privilege and honor of being presented as a person-with-Parkinson’s in our Neurologic Block. They asked very specific questions in their attempt to understand Parkinson’s and to learn how I am living with this disorder. It was clear that they were trying to follow the advice of Dr. William Osler who said “It is much more important to know what sort of a patient has a disease than what sort of a disease a patient has.”

“Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion, and empathy.”  Dean Koontz

What is the life expectancy of someone diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and Huntington’s disease? These neurodegenerative disorders are listed in ranked order of how many people are affected from most to least, respectively. Alzheimer’s typically progress over 2 to 20 years, and individuals live for 8 to 10 years after the diagnosis.  People who have Parkinson’s usually have the same average life expectancy as people without the disease.  Life expectancy from ALS is usually at least 3-4 years. The time from diagnosis  of Huntington’s to death is about 10 to 30 years.  Each of these disorders is uniquely different and unsettling to me; but your empathy, not your sympathy, will truly help me sail my boat along the shoreline for many more years.  Accept me with ‘my unique medical issues’, try to understand it. Your empathy will add stability to my battle; just watch.

“Resolve to be tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving, and tolerant of the weak and the wrong. Sometime in life you will have been all of these.” Lloyd Shearer

A novel engineering device is empathy-producing to someone with Parkinson’s: The whole story is revealed from watching this video (click here). Klick Labs in Toronto, Canada, has created the SymPulse Tele-Empathy Device. This device is capable of mimicking and producing the tremors and involuntary movements of someone with Parkinson’s in people without Parkinson’s. The video is quite powerful, you immediately sense the empathy.

The SymPulse Tele-Empathy Device is based on digitized muscle activity from electromyograms of Parkinson’s patients. The signal is unique for each person with Parkinson’s. When the person without Parkinson’s receives this novel voltage pattern, their muscles will contract exactly as found in the person with Parkinson’s. Developing such a device shows the deviant nature of Parkinson’s to disrupt/distort normal neuro-muscular circuitry.

This device could be used to increase empathy in doctors and other caregivers. And it could enable family members and loved-ones the unique opportunity to experience the actual tremor/involuntary movements of their special person with Parkinson’s. Company officials note that most people wear the device for at most a couple of minutes; turn off the device and they return to normal. Remember, there is no off-on switch for the person with Parkinson’s.  I can only imagine empathy evolving from this device when used on someone without Parkinson’s.

“When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.” Henri J.M. Nouwen

Cover photo credit: gsmnp.com/wp-content/uploads/View-of-Smoky-Mountains-from-Oconaluftee.jpg

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