"I had seen this woman only in light of her need."


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Compassion is an emotion that motivates many of us to pursue a career in nursing. The desire to help others in physical need is at the heart of the science and art of nursing. I have discovered an incredible joy and fulfillment in equipping others with improved health through the art of nursing. Compassion for the state of another person's suffering is a motivating force toward change. Yet I have discovered that there is a stark difference between compassion and pity.

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Compassion has its roots in respect for another human being. It implies seeing another person as an equal. On the other hand, pity demeans another's position. With pity, there is a lack of respect for the person. When caring for an individual's physical needs, we should focus on his or her needs, and yet always strive to see the individual as our equal-motivated by compassion.


Working in the development of third-world country medicine, I am tempted to focus only on the poverty and the dire need of each patient. Sometimes I notice that this focus tends to turn my compassion into pity. The danger is that I may lose sight of each patient's individuality.


I remember vividly the first time this shift became obvious to me. I was caring for an illiterate elderly woman in the small city of Porto Velho located in the heart of the Amazon jungle. As I sutured the wound on this woman's hand, I thought about the poverty of her circumstances, and I began to pity her for the life she lived. After she left, I thought a lot about the humble state of her existence.


A few days later, the woman returned to the clinic holding a beautiful basket. She told me she had woven the basket as a gift of appreciation for what I had done for her. Holding that exquisite basket, I realized the delicate art her hands had so skillfully woven. I was ashamed that I had seen this woman only in light of her need, and that my pity for her had nearly kept me from being able to appreciate the complexity of who she was.


I cannot help but wonder how often pity for a patient inhibits respect for the dynamic nature of human beings. How often in my nursing career has compassion turned to pity? My experience with the woman taught me that I can miss out on the opportunity to see my patients as individuals whose identities are much greater than their circumstances. Patients are not defined by their physical need-something I hope to remember with each new patient. I cannot allow pity to guide me in my assistance. Only with compassion will I be able to offer care in a manner that respects the individuality of my patients.


This will be to my benefit and that of my patients as well.