Readers, friends, and relatives have been asking for an update on last week’s pericarditis episode so here goes, along with a Henry Fielding diagnosis.
At present, every doctor I’ve talked to sees this as a one-off event. Apparently a virus inflamed my heart’s membrane, causing it to rub up against the heart (thus the chest pains). In severe cases, this can stop the heart, but with me, anti-inflammatory medication went to work almost immediately so that I was pain-free by the following day. I am back to teaching my classes but I return straight home afterwards as I wait for the virus to leave my body.
The viruses that lead to pericarditis are often a mystery, but I’ve got a theory about mine. I think the week I spent with my dying friend Rachel in a Bronx hospital took an emotional toll that decimated my immune system. A recent Washington Post article about “empathy fatigue” lays out the dangers. At one point, it cites a study of parents and depressed adolescents:
The more empathic the parent, the researchers found, the more likely that person was to be experiencing chronic low-grade inflammation. The researchers speculate, “Parents who readily engage with the struggles and perspectives of others may leave themselves vulnerable to additional burdens, expending physiological resources in order to better help others.”
The article goes on to advise “compassionate empathy” over “emotional empathy”:
With emotional empathy, you actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotion. This is the type of response that, left unchecked, can lead to caretaker burnout, says [psychology professor Jamil] Zaki.
And then there’s compassionate empathy, where you feel concern about another’s suffering, but from more of a distance and with a desire to help the person in need.
Looking back, I didn’t protect myself with a compassionate approach but felt wrenched by Rachel’s pain. I returned to Maryland exhausted and had to drag myself through the first week of classes. My respect for professional caregivers, already high, skyrocketed.
In Fielding’s example from Tom Jones, Dr. Blifil is betrayed by his brother and leaves Squire Allworthy’s house a shattered man. Fielding offers the following explanation for his subsequent death:
The doctor went directly to London, where he died soon after of a broken heart; a distemper which kills many more than is generally imagined, and would have a fair title to a place in the bill of mortality, did it not differ in one instance from all other diseases—viz., that no physician can cure it.
Blifil is emotionally battered in part because of his brother’s ingratitude—Blifil aided in his mercenary marriage to Bridget Allworthy—in part because of his own guilt over the affair. Guilt combined with sorrow proves to be a lethal combination:
He once intended to acquaint Allworthy with the whole; but he could not bring himself to submit to the confession, by which he must take to his share so great a portion of guilt.
Guilt that I could not do more entered into my own interactions with Rachel. I underestimated the overall impact.