The Power of Empathy


I read about Irène Frachon the other day. She’s a French doctor who back in 2007 noticed a strange pattern of illness which seemed familiar to her. She noticed that a patient with “pulmonary hypertension” had developed the condition only after taking a particular medication for diabetes – “Mediator”. Then she came across one who had heart valve disease develop after the same drug. She remembered similar problems occuring with an earlier, but in some ways, similar drug, so started to investigate. It took several years, and the publication of a book, “Mediator 150mg. Combien de morts?” before the company Servier finally took the drug off the market. Various estimates of between 1300 and 1800 people may have died as a result of taking this drug.

It wasn’t the Mediator story itself which caught my attention (sadly, such drug stories are really not so rare), but it was Irène Frachon’s story. As she talks about her involvement in the Mediator story it is clear that from the very beginning it was not just her ability to recognise a pattern which was a great strength, it was her compassion and empathy which drove her to keep a single focus on the patients. This is what gave her the determination to have the problem recognised and dealt with. In fact, she is still astonished that neither the drug company, nor the regulators acted more quickly. She says “The elephant was in the room but everyone was turning their head away”. The story caused quite a disturbance in France (click through on my reference to Mediator to read a Lancet article about it) and has shone a light on drug company behaviour, the “spinelessness and credulity” of the regulator in relation to the drug companies, and the links between big business and politicians. But Dr Frachon fought on for the one single reason – to get justice for those who had been harmed. 

Where did she get this determination from? She says that as a girl she was inspired by the stories of Albert Schweitzer and his “empathie absolue” for those who suffered. When she heard those stories she decided to become a doctor. Interestingly, I would argue, those stories didn’t just prompt her to become a doctor, but to become a particular kind of doctor – one for whom “absolute empathy” was the core value.

A lot of thoughts arose for me when reading this article. Firstly, how lucky I have been to have encountered so many doctors, through my training and through my workplaces, who share this core value of empathy. It’s what characterises their everyday actions as well as their career choices. And, secondly, how stories we hear in childhood influence the rest of our lives.

I first said I wanted to be a doctor before I was 4 years old. But I didn’t come from a family where there were any doctors, so where did this come from? I don’t know but I do know I was very influenced by a fictional doctor – Dr Finlay – a GP in a small Scottish town who had all the characteristics of what would now be termed an “old fashioned family doctor”. I didn’t want to just be a doctor, I wanted to be a Dr Finlay kind of doctor. 

So, maybe one of the best things we can do is tell our children stories of inspirational, empathic people. Not that that should mean they all grow up to be doctors, but maybe they will take the core value of empathy into their adult lives.

What stories do you think influenced your career, or life choices? 


Can hugs make you healthier?

Here’s an interesting study from Carnegie Mellon University. The researcher, Sheldon Cohen, said

We know that people experiencing ongoing conflicts with others are less able to fight off cold viruses. We also know that people who report having social support are partly protected from the effects of stress on psychological states, such as depression and anxiety. We tested whether perceptions of social support are equally effective in protecting us from stress-induced susceptibility to infection and also whether receiving hugs might partially account for those feelings of support and themselves protect a person against infection.


The researchers measured over a two week period, frequencies of interpersonal conflicts, the level of perceived social support and receiving hugs in about 400 healthy adults. They then exposed the participants to a common cold virus and monitored in quarantine to assess infection and signs of illness.

The results showed that perceived social support reduced the risk of infection associated with experiencing conflicts. Hugs were responsible for one-third of the protective effect of social support. Among infected participants, greater perceived social support and more frequent hugs both resulted in less severe illness symptoms whether or not they experienced conflicts.


“This suggests that being hugged by a trusted person may act as an effective means of conveying support and that increasing the frequency of hugs might be an effective means of reducing the deleterious effects of stress,” Cohen said. “The apparent protective effect of hugs may be attributable to the physical contact itself or to hugging being a behavioral indicator of support and intimacy. Either way, those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection.”

Hugs, however they actually do their stuff, have long been one of my most favourite ways of staying healthy! (And even if they had no “protective effect”, they’d still be good, wouldn’t they?)


Found in translation

John Berger writes -

Because true translation is not a binary affair between two languages but a triangular affair. The third point of the triangle being what lay behind the words of the original text before it was written. True translation demands a return to the pre-verbal. One reads and rereads the words of the original text in order to penetrate through them to reach, to touch, the vision or experience that prompted them. One then gathers up what one has found there and takes this quivering almost wordless “thing” and places it behind the language it needs to be translated into. And now the principal task is to persuade the host language to take in and welcome the “thing” that is waiting to be articulated.

Interesting, huh? That mechanical translation matches word to word then seeks to get the grammar correct, but is the original idea or meaning translated well that way?

As I begin to live in a country where the language is not my first language, I find that, at least in this first phase, I’m translating all the time. Reading or hearing French and translating it into English in my head to understand the meaning. But already there are phrases which seem to require no translation, and phrases that pop into my head fully formed in French. I’m guessing that gradually I’ll do less and less translation.

But actually although Berger is talking about translating a text from one language into another, I think maybe the same issues apply to all communication. I have an idea or a feeling to express, pick some words, some phrases. I’m translating it into written or spoken language. Aren’t I? Which leads me to wonder about the rich diversity of inner lives. I’m sure we all get that experience, from time to time, where we think that someone else seems to come from another planet. Where their worldview is so different from ours that we don’t even seem to be speaking a common language, despite the fact that a superficial observation would lead to the conclusion that we are indeed speaking the same language.

When Berger mentions the third point of the triangle, I suspect he is thinking of our inner lives. That leads me to three questions today.

  1. How can I know my inner life?
  2. How can I express or show my inner life?
  3. How can I know the inner life of another?

For me, the first involves practices of awareness and reflection, the second, creative acts, and the third requires ongoing dialogue. Isn’t it interesting that all three have no end? I will never know myself completely, never be able to fully express myself, and never fully know another. That makes me feel both excited and humble.

Excited because all that is an adventure, a voyage of discovery, and a constant stream of revelation and wonder. It is the ‘émerveillement du quotidien‘.

Humble because nothing can be known completely, fully or finally. Montaigne knew that with his ‘Que sais-je?

Over to you now. How do you answer those three questions? You, personally, in your own life?

  1. How can I know my inner life?
  2. How can I express or show my inner life?
  3. How can I know the inner life of another?



Why do I find the dew-soaked, rain-soaked spiders’ webs so appealing?

Three reasons, at least -

First, they are just so beautiful.

Second, each drop becomes a little lens, which shows the surrounding world upside down. Reminds me how everything we experience is through our personal lens, so our view of the world is always our unique, singular view.

Third, because the form/concept of links and nodes describes so well the phenomena of the world. Shifting our perspective from seeing a world of objects, to seeing a never-ending web of links, hubs or nodes, connections and relationships is exciting!

In the second part of the A to Z of Becoming, we’ve reached the troublesome letter “X”! In the first part, I chose “eXcite“, and in this part I’m going for “eXtol” (yes, I know they both start with an “e”, but make me a suggestion – what verbs do you know actually start with an “x”?)

To extol means to praise….to enthuse about, to rave about, to passionately, lavishly praise. So, it struck me, how appropriate to be choosing a verb which means to praise this month.

What, or who, would you like to praise, and why?

I’ll start……

In April we visited one of the most beautiful villages in France – Saint Guilhem le Désert – it looks like this -
Saint Guilhem le Desert

In this village we stumbled across a tiny perfumier run by man called Nicholas Jennings. Here he is -


Look behind him at his wonderful desk where he selects the various natural scents to make the products he sells in his shop.

At the door of the shop, he had a wonderful pendulum drawing intricate designs on sand. Nicholas and his friend, Ludovic make them.

So, now that I have my study set up in my house in France, I’ve got my own “pendule de sable” hanging in the window.


Written on the sand

Isn’t it wonderful?

So, there’s one thing for me to “extol”! The amazing, totally absorbing, pendulum of the sand.

And while I’m at it, I can enthuse about Nicholas and his wonderful perfume shop, and the village where it is – Saint Guilhem le Desert.

The village is on one of the paths of the pilgrims to Compostella – you can know that from seeing the saint-jacques shells everywhere…..


There’s something else unique in this village, and that’s the dried “cardabelles” on the doors. This is now a protected plant, but the villagers can gather them in season. It’s believed to bring luck and protection.



So, as I set the pendulum in motion once more, I’m not only absorbed in the uniqueness of every single design it makes, but I remember Saint Guilhem le Desert, the cardabelles, the shells along the pilgrim’s way, and Nicholas and his shop.

See what joy can follow when you start to “eXtol” something?!

Your turn……….




the magpie rhyme 

behind the vine

Now the leaves have fallen from the vine, it’s a different kind of beautiful.


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