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    Ann Curry: Empathy can save lives

    Emmy Award-winning journalist Ann Curry urged attendees at the AAMC’s annual meeting to consider how deep listening and meaningful connection serve patients — and physicians.

    Veteran television reporter Ann Curry speaks with Bon Ku, MD, assistant dean for medical education of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia at Learn Serve Lead 2020.
    Veteran television reporter Ann Curry speaks with Bon Ku, MD, assistant dean for medical education of Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia at Learn Serve Lead 2020.
    Photo by Laura Zelaya

    When Ann Curry was asked to speak at the AAMC’s annual meeting in the middle of a worldwide pandemic, the veteran television reporter wasn’t quite sure what she had to offer. Then she realized that effective journalists and medical providers share one crucial trait: empathy.

    An ability to listen deeply and connect powerfully has “made me a better journalist, and it makes you better doctors,” the Emmy Award-winning Curry said on Nov. 17 at a Learn Serve Lead 2020: The Virtual Experience session titled “We All Have a Story to Tell.”

    Curry, a former NBC News anchor and Today show host, went on to share a significant experience reporting on the war in Congo. Her team thought they had the story, but she said “really opening up” allowed her to capture the searing tale of a young woman who had witnessed the murder of her parents, was dragged off by soldiers, and then was brutally raped multiple times. 

    “This could have been just a story about someone in Africa,” Curry said. Instead, by sitting down with the young woman to fully hear her story, she captured footage that allowed audiences back home to “see your sister, your mother … your child. You connect and connect others to deeper truths.”

    Empathy can come with significant emotional costs, though, Curry told listeners and the session’s moderator, Bon Ku, MD, assistant dean for medical education at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia. Ku served as a consultant to one of Curry’s recent projects, Chasing the Cure, in which physicians collaborate to seek solutions for people with challenging conditions. Curry, who has covered wars, natural disasters, and human rights struggles, shared some of her personal strategies for staying well.

    First, she emphasized caring for oneself emotionally, reaching out for professional help when needed. She also emphasized fostering physical well-being, such as through exercise or massage. Third on her list is making a conscious effort to connect painful moments back to the broader meaning and purpose of one’s work. 

    Reaching out to colleagues is also crucial, the journalist has found. “Simply listening to each other’s stories … can be comforting,” she noted. “It helps to be understood by those who would know.”

    In a time of so much illness and suffering and in such a deeply divided country, Curry offered listeners reason to hope. “Empathy is actually something that is intrinsic” to human beings, she said, and it can be boosted, much like a muscle. “As we exercise more and more empathy … we will come back together again.”

    Medical schools can — and must — help students hone their empathy, Curry argued. To do so, she advised educators to proactively explain empathy to students, present the latest research on it, and share real patients’ firsthand experiences. Physicians need to learn “not just an ability to assess data quickly to come up with a diagnosis but also the capacity to connect,” she said. “I think it’s going to be enriching not just for the patient but enriching for the doctors.”

    In the Q&A portion of the session, Curry was asked about the challenge of extending empathy toward COVID-19 patients who had not worn a face mask. She replied by sharing her experiences interviewing world leaders suspected of committing horrific abuses. 

    “All human beings have a fundamental human dignity,” she said. “They may be ignorant, they may be confused, they may have made terrible mistakes, but they’re still a human being.” In addition, she noted, she felt like she had a responsibility to maintain a professional distance and focus on the job at hand.

    Curry also reminded leaders in the audience to have compassion for their front-line workers, and she urged them to provide the supports their staffs need during this traumatic time.

    And she urged physicians to have compassion for themselves and recognize that they are living through an extraordinarily challenging moment in history. Patients — including those who suffer greatly — deeply appreciate knowing they were cared for and not abandoned, she said.

    “Even on your last day, as you breathe your last breath, you will know that [what you did during this pandemic] mattered. ... You will be remembered for what you’re doing now,” she said. “You will be admired.”