What compassion looks like

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to NPR interview a Doctors without Borders nurse who was in Africa working in one of the Ebola zones. The interview focused on the protective gear the nurses and doctors wear to treat Ebola patients, and it was fascinating — the specific way into and out of the gear, the challenges of working in the intense heat that the suits produce (there is no ventilation since ventilation would mean potential exposure), and the fact that it takes two people to get each other dressed and undressed. As the nurse kept repeating, “there are no shortcuts with Ebola.” Skip a step and you potentially expose yourself or your partner to the deadly virus.


The interview took place from the point of view of keeping the nurses and doctors safe, and I for one am glad we insist on our caregivers being cared for in this way. These are brave women and men on the front lines of the Ebola outbreak. We ought to pay close attention to protecting them — for their own health and for the sake of containing the outbreak.

Then, at the end of the segment, the interviewer asked what changes the nurse would like to have in the protective gear to improve her working conditions. Her answer was arresting.

She replied that what she most wished for was a different way to protect her face. The hazmat suit, along with the protective mask and goggles, means that the only part of her face that is visible to a patient is her eyes, and even eyes are hard to see well behind the goggles. She went on to say that because Ebola is so contagious, patients are completely isolated. They have no family by their side, they cannot be touched except through layers of rubber gloves, and all they can see behind the yellow suits and medical-grade masks and goggles is the eyes of their nurse, their doctor. Many patients die this way — alone, isolated, afraid, hungry for human touch and companionship.

The best I can do, she went on to say, is smile at them with my eyes, but I wish they could see my whole face so they could know they are not alone.

Her answer for how to improve her working conditions? Help me love the terrified, the isolated, the dying more, better, fully.

Would that I understood compassion like this.

“Our hearts of stone become hearts of flesh when we learn where the outcast weeps.”
― Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging

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