Joey Eisch, the 12-year-old son of friends of ours, was a major goofball with an enormous smile, a contagious laugh, and a sheer love of life.The photo above gives you a sense of him. It was taken at his parents’ wedding just two months ago – a wedding my husband and I attended, where we had a few minutes to spend with Joey. Just such a happy dynamo of a boy.
Then, on Friday, July 24, Joey was killed while riding his bicycle. It was purely an accident. He was riding on the grassy shoulder of the road when he heard a car coming up behind him. As he turned his head to look around to see it, he turned the handlebars on his bike too, steering him directly in front of the oncoming truck. Several hours later he was pronounced brain dead at the hospital and his parents had to decide to take him off life-support. He died shortly afterward.
Devastating. I’m sure the only way one can understand the pain of losing a child is to have done so oneself. Whether the child is your own, or is close to your family, if you have ever had to suffer this kind of pain, please know you have my sympathy.
I won’t even attempt to describe the highly emotional memorial service except to say that it was packed with friends of the family, Joey’s schoolmates and more. At the end, through tears, we released perhaps a thousand purple balloons in his memory. (Purple was his favorite color.)
So what does this have to do with patient advocacy?
Some of us are in a position to witness family tragedies every day. I don’t mean that we are working with clients who have suffered horrifying accidents (although some of us may). But I do mean that new and devastating diagnoses, test results and prognoses are delivered every day to people who don’t expect them. Some of those people become our clients. Taking the time to acknowledge their emotional devastation, leading with empathy or sympathy*, can improve our service to them.
So much of what potential clients complain about is that doctors and other providers no longer seem to care what happens to them. We advocates have a chance to add caring back to the mix. Expressing empathy or sympathy appropriately is one way to do so.
At Joey’s memorial service, his father Brian urged us all to “Just cherish your kids. Give them a hug and tell them you love them every time you can.” Great advice.
Start at home. Even though you didn’t know Joey, please hear his father’s words. Cherish your children (and grandchildren) in obvious ways – hug them, kiss them, tell them you love them. Be sure that if they were gone tomorrow, they would know just how you feel.
Then let the ripple effect influence your work with clients and potential clients. Be very obvious with them about how you care. They’ll appreciate that you acknowledge their emotional pain, and that you are there to support them beyond just the nuts and bolts of navigation and medical bill solutions.
It’s impossible to find meaning in the death of one young boy unless we can use his life, and his smile, to improve the way we treat and support others.
Photo of Joey: courtesy of the Eisch family.
*The difference between sympathy and empathy: Empathetic feelings mean you feel them as if they are your own, perhaps based on your own experience – very personal. Sympathetic feelings indicate compassion and caring, but they are not feelings you feel as your own.