The desire to connect and empathize led many of us into the healthcare professions. When an emotionally distressed family member draws close in the unit hallway to privately disclose their worries, it can feel downright wrong to instinctively step backward. This is the interpersonal reality that we face in the COVID-19 era, masked and apart, yet we can learn to skills to adapt.
We can comfort our patients (and ourselves) with empathy. “I wish” statements help us to give words to what we have lost: “I wish that I could shake your hand” or “I wish that we could sit together on this couch.” By naming what we miss, we bring it back, albeit in a different from. Nevertheless, such statements offer us and our patients the opportunity to together imagine an old way of connecting, and in doing so, we forge a new connection.
We can also challenge ourselves to use descriptive language. While we could once lazily rely on a smile or handshake, we must now discipline ourselves to use words: “I am so glad to meet you.” We can use words to describe the patient or families’ experience: “It is so helpful that you were able to travel to the hospital so that we can talk in person. I can see that it means a lot to your brother that you are here today.” We can also use words to better understand how patients and families are feeling. Without full facial cues, it is hard to understand the emotional impact of what we are saying. Making small guesses about patient’s emotions, and then checking to see if we got it right, is an important way to maintain an emotional connection: “I imagine this is very frustrating. Am I understanding you correctly?”
Finally, we can work with the facial muscles that we have left. Emotion researcher Ursula Hess has observed that a genuine smile can be perceived by observers even under a surgical mask as additional non-mouth muscles, the zygomaticus major and orbicularis oculi, engage.5 Whether from nature or nurture, humans continually search the faces of others for that disarming eye crinkle and squint. We can hold the gaze of the patient’s family member over the mask or through the screen, and crinkle those muscles extra hard, wrinkles be damned.