When I hire nurses, I need tough, resilient leaders.  In a short job interview, I have to quickly recognize genuine toughness, fueled by a fierce empathy.  So I am continually surprised that people cannot see through the flimsy façade of toughness that President Trump presents through his words and actions. It’s a weak imitation of what I see in nurses every day.

After a meeting the other day, I returned to my hospital unit to see one of my employees holding a bag of ice to her cheek.  The nurse explained that a confused and hurting patient had thrown a full urinal at her in frustration.  Luckily the urine stayed in the urinal but the impact left a bruise, and employee health had recommended ice.  When I asked if she wanted a new assignment, she declined. She told me that the behavioral response team had been called, the trigger to the patient’s confusion and anger identified, a behavior plan was in place, and she would continue to care for her patient. She stated, “We have an understanding now.”

Unfortunately, her experience was not unique. One in four nurses have been assaulted at work in the past year. In my ten-year career in health care, I have witnessed nurses endure racial and sexual slurs, comforted colleagues who were hit by intoxicated patients, and watched nurses calmly carry on after receiving unfair criticism from grieving family members.

Despite all that, nurses still demonstrate a fierce empathy for their patients. 

And it is important that they do so. Understanding their patients’ feelings and perspectives leads to appropriate boundary-setting, courageous advocacy, and wise decision-making under pressure. Empathy overcomes disorienting emotional responses to allow for wise decisions based on evidence and wisdom rather than fear and bad assumptions. Fierce empathy allows nurses to be insightful and tough when coming face to face with flying urinals.

Nurses have many different ways of nurturing empathy.  Some imagine the patient as one of their own family members; some focus on the illness that is causing the behavior; some remember a time when they may have been in a similar situation and have appreciated the grace of another; and some picture what it would be like to actually be that patient. I find it helpful to picture the patient as a 3-year-old, reminding myself that something must have happened in between that innocent child and this difficult adult.

Nurses cultivate empathy because they know that action without empathy leads to failure. I know that success in any demanding environment includes a fierce kind of empathy.  Unfortunately, President Trump’s authoritarian leadership style is void of empathy. It is, instead, punitive and dehumanizing— the opposite of empathetic.   He believes in a “toughness” that includes executing drug dealers as a solution to the opioid crisis and an immigration policy that includes indefinite detainment timeframes and family separation. Our president practices a type of “toughness” that is akin to school-yard bullying when he name-calls and imitates those with different ideas or abilities.  Trump praises and emulates the insecure dictatorial leadership of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Because our president lacks empathy his actions are reactive and fearful.  His methods for dealing with complex and potentially explosive issues are primitive, punitive, and facile.

Some may believe that given the pressures on him and the challenges our country faces, there is no room for showing empathy as president.

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s empathetic response to a tragic mass shooting in her country suggests otherwise.  After 50 people were slaughtered in a mosque, Prime Minister Ardern joined her fellow-citizens in their grief.  She respectfully donned a hijab to visit, listen, and empathize with those most closely affected.  Then she took action.  She immediately labeled the event a terrorist attack and bravely led her Parliament to swiftly pass the tough law to ban military-style semi-automatic weapons. Prime Minister Ardern earned the respect of the world for her response to the tragedy.  In contrast, Trump’s tough-guy response to multiple similar attacks in the United States has been passive and ineffectual.  He doesn’t do much at all when our houses of worship are attacked.

Nurses are some of the toughest people I know.  The compassion they model every day defines the true toughness lacking in Trump and his followers.  The effectiveness of those countering bullets— and urinals— with fierce empathy exposes the false toughness of Donald Trump and his followers as fraudulent and impotent.

Fortunately, empathy is a practice that can be learned if one is courageous and tough enough to try. You can see it in action in a hospital unit near you.

Elizabeth Stewart DNP, RN is the Unit Director of the Skilled Care Unit and Inpatient Dialysis at Rush Oak Park Hospital and is a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.  

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Photo License: Flickr

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