On empathy and the search for meaning

 But there was no need to be ashamed of tears, for tears bore witness that man had the greatest of courage, the courage to suffer.
Viktor Frankl "Mans search for meaning".

I met some great people this week. People who made an impact -and not just on me. People who have been brave enough to tell their stories to help others understand more from their perspective, to challenge current practice, to enable change to happen. I know that's not easy and not without a cost but it does make a difference.  Tommy Whitelaw is one of them: an eloquent and passionate story teller.

 His campaign to raise awareness of dementia touches the deeper places of our awareness, leaves people unable to look away. Hearing his and his Mum's story holds up the mirror on our care systems. Tommy respectfully but powerfully articulates this, helping us see it through his eyes: yes as a carer, but also as a loving son. A system that sadly allowed him to find out what might have helped him and his Mum only when it was too late to make a difference. A system that allowed people to care for her for years without knowing who she was or what and who mattered to her. Our collective challenge is to listen to Tommy and Joan's story and make sure it's not repeated.

And others I met told their story of how a disability can, without the right support , lead to imprisonment in your own home. One amazing man imprisoned  in one room for more than a decade saw his life transformed by the good work of a charity, Housing Options Scotland. This has led to him now able to get out, his world enhanced beyond measure.

Such powerful stories build our empathy for their situations, understand better how to meet needs in the future. For that time we walk a little way in their shoes, see the world through their eyes. And eventually we know what to do to change things. I have seen this DVD from the Cleveland clinic a couple of times now, each time it moves me. Do watch it. Its not just being touched by my shared experience  but the small discoveries below the surface that make a scene all the more powerful. Thanks to all of those who share their worlds below the surface, it's not easy and takes great courage and strength to show your vulnerabilities.

It also led me to think about resilience in the face of crisis, change and trauma. It's an oft used term in our currently challenging world. How do we help people build resilience, what helps them survive? Victor Frankl in his book  "Mans search for Meaning" describes that from his experience of surviving in a concentration camp, it is about finding meaning and  purpose.

Life is never made unbearable by circumstances, but only by lack of meaning and purpose.
Viktor E. Frankl

Having the right environment to live and the right network of support can change meaning and purpose so much. And what could that mean for those working in health and social care? What better purpose can we have than enabling another's wellbeing? And yet we learn that resilience is tested with current working practice and cultures. What in the system stops people having a sense of meaning from their work as care givers? What is lost that we need to recover? Unlocking that is Im sure how to secure the best experience for all in those precious relationships.

I have spoken often of the great care I have received throughout my recent treatment for breast cancer. And this week Professor Mike Dixon, my surgeon, has been awarded an OBE. He has worked relentlessly for others and its so clear that what makes him resilient is the meaningful (if often heart rending and exhausting too )work he does and the purpose which he has never lost sight of. Truly inspiring. It's an award for services to breast cancer and charity. It could not be more deserved.

Reasons to be cheerful.
One of the great joys this week was a reception hosted by HRH Prince Charles for Breakthrough Breast Cancer  supporters in Scotland in Holyrood Palace . The pleasure for many in meeting the Prince was matched by meeting Professor Mike Dixon too, lets be honest! For many of us there, he has seen us in less elegant attire perhaps but he never forgets a face ( at least I think it's the faces he recognises!).Its so fortunate to have such times to celebrate when the backstory is so challenging. And for me it was so good to see old colleagues rising to the occasion and many old friends in their finery, celebrating such a special occasion for all involved. My only sadness is that it was over too quickly to have all the conversations I wanted to. The reception came at the end of the excellent  two day NHS Scotland event ..the change of shoes wasnt quite enough save my feet but Im sure they will recover in time?!
Audrey goes to Holyrood


  1. What a wonderful post Audrey - it really touched me today. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Thanks Marie. I hope you found both the video clips as powerful as i did.Should have given a hanky warning!


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