Cultivating emotional awareness

A path to resilience and joy in the hospital


Approaching the nursing unit, I heard the anxiety in my masked colleagues’ voices. I was starting another rotation on our COVID unit; this week I was trying to develop my emotional awareness in an effort to help with the stress of the job and, just as importantly, take in the moments of positive emotions when they arose. I was making a conscious effort to take in all I saw and felt in the same way I approached my patient examinations: my mind quiet, receptive, and curious.

Dr. Leif Hass, a hospitalist at Sutter Health in Oakland, Calif.

Dr. Leif Hass

Seeing my nursing teammates covered with personal protective equipment, I felt a little reverence at the purpose they bring to work. Thinking of our patients, isolated and scared in noisy, ventilated rooms, there was compassion welling up in my chest. Thinking about my role on the team, I felt humbled by the challenges of treating this new disease and meeting the needs of staff and patient.

A few years ago, a period of frustration and disaffectedness had led me to apply my diagnostic eye to myself: I was burning out. Developing a mindfulness practice has transformed my experience at work. Now, the pandemic pushed me to go beyond a few minutes of quieting the mind before work. I was developing my emotional awareness. A growing body of research suggests that emotional awareness helps temper the negative experiences and savor the good. This week on the COVID unit was an opportunity to put this idea to the test.

Across the hall from the desk was Ms. A, 85-year-old woman who always clutched her rosary. My Spanish is not great, but I understood her prayer when I entered the room. She had tested positive for COVID about 7 days before – so had all the people in her multigenerational home. Over the din of the negative-pressure machine, with damp eyes she kept saying she wanted to go home. I felt my body soften and, in my chest, it felt as if my heart moved towards her which is the manifestation of compassion. “I will do my best to get you there soon,” I said in an effort to comfort her.

We often resist strong emotions, especially at work, because they can increase stress in situations where we need to be in control. In high-emotion situations, our brain’s warning centers alert both body and brain. This has helped our ancestors to action over the millennia, but in the hospital, these responses hurt more than help. Our bodies amplifying the emotion, our mind races for solutions and we can feel overwhelmed.

Simply recognizing the emotion and naming it puts the brakes on this process. fMRI data demonstrate that naming the emotions moves the brain activity away from the emotion centers to the appraisal centers in the frontal lobe. Just the perspective to see the emotional process calms it down.

Name it to tame it – this is what those in the field call this act. “This is sadness,” I said to myself as I left Ms. A’s room.

Down the hall was Mr. D; he was an 81-year-old former Vietnamese refugee. He had come in 3 days prior to my coming on service. While he didn’t talk, even with an interpreter, he ate well and had looked comfortable for days on 50% O2.

Ms. A’s O2 needs crept up each day as did her anxiety, the plaintive tenor of her prayers and inquiries about going home. I got a priest to visit, not for last rites but just for some support. Over the phone, I updated the family on the prognosis.

A couple of days later, she needed 95% O2 and with PO2 was only 70. I told her family it seemed she was losing her battle with the virus. I said we could see how she did on 60% – that’s the max she could get at home with hospice. I called them after 2 hours on 60% to tell them she was up eating and despite slight increased resp rate, she looked okay. “Can you guarantee that she would not make it if she stayed in the hospital? “

My body vibrating with uncertainty – an emotional mix of fear and sadness – I said, “I am sorry, but this is such a new disease, I can’t say that for certain.” On the call, family members voiced different opinions, but in the end, they were unable to give up hope, so we agreed to keep her in hospital.

Down the hall, Mr. D had stopped eating and his sats dropped as did his blood pressure. A nurse exited his room; despite the mask and steamed-up glasses, I could read her body language. “That poor man is dying,” she said. I told her I agreed and called the family with the news and to offer them a chance to visit and to talk about home hospice.

“He has not seen any of us in 10 months,” said his daughter over the phone, “We would love to visit and talk about bringing him home on hospice.” The next morning four of his nine kids showed up with a quart of jook, an Asian rice porridge, for him and pastries for the staff.

They left the room smiling an hour later. “He ate all the jook and he smiled! Yes, let’s work on home with hospice.” That night his blood pressure was better, and we were able to move him to 8 liters oxymizer; the staff was excited by his improvement, too.

The next day Ms. A was less responsive with sats in the 80’s on 100% FiO2, but she still had this great sense of warmth and dignity about her. When I entered the room, Spanish Catholic hymns were playing, two of her kids stood leaning over the bed and on an iPod, there was a chorus of tears. 20 family members were all crying on a Zoom call. Together this made the most beautiful soundtrack to an end of life I have ever heard. I tried hard not to join the chorus as we talked about turning off the oxygen to help limit her suffering.

We added a bolus of morphine to her drip and removed the oxygen. She looked more beautiful and peaceful without it. Briefly, she closed her eyes then opened them, her breathing calmer. And with the hymns and the chorus of family crying she lived another 20 minutes in the loving presence of her big family.

Leaving the room, I was flooded with “woulda, coulda, shouldas” that accompany work with so much uncertainty and high stakes. “Maybe I should have tried convalescent plasma. Maybe I should have told them she must go home,” and so on my mind went on looking for solutions when there were none. I turned to my body – my chest ached, and I whispered to myself: “This is how sadness feels.”

By thinking about how the emotion feels in the body, we move the mind away from problem solving that can end up leading to unhealthy ruminations. Such thoughts in times of high emotions lead to that pressurized, tightness feeling we get when overwhelmed. Taking in the universal sensations of the emotions is calming and connects us with these deep human experiences in healthy ways. At the same time, the racing and ruminations stop.

Meanwhile, down the hall, Mr. D’s family arrived in great spirits armed with more food for patient and staff. He was to go home later that day with hospice. When they saw him up in the chair without the oxygen, they said: “It is a miracle, Dr. Hass! He is going home on hospice but having beat COVID! We can’t thank you enough!”

“Don’t thank me! He was cured by love and jook! What a lesson for us all. Sometimes there is no better medicine than food from home and love!” With the explosive expansiveness of joy, we shared some “elbow bumps” and took some pictures before he was wheeled home.

Back at the nurse’s station, there were tears. Sometimes life is so full of emotion that it is hard to give it a name – joy? grief? Our bodies almost pulsing, our minds searching for words, it is as if an ancient process is marking a time and place in our souls. “This is what it is to be a human being living with love and creating meaning,” the experience seems to be telling us.

This is awesome work. In fact, awe was what we were feeling then – that sense of wonder we have in the presence of something beautiful or vast that we cannot easily comprehend. Taking in these moments of awe at the power and depth of the human experience is critical to keep us humble, engaged, and emotionally involved.

Cultivating emotional awareness is a simple technique to maintain equanimity as we do the emotionally turbulent work of caring for vulnerable and seriously ill members of our community. It uses the same techniques of attention and diagnosis we use on those we care for. It is a practice that can be seamlessly incorporated into our workday with no time added. Recognizing it, naming it, and feeling it will give us the resilience to handle the challenges this amazing work inevitably brings.

Dr. Hass is a hospitalist at Sutter East Bay Medical Group in Oakland, Calif. He is a member of the clinical faculty at the University of California, Berkeley–UC San Francisco joint medical program, and an adviser on health and health care at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

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