Albo case good example of empathy gap

Last week my column dealt with empathy as a critical element of a healthy society. To understand the feelings of others and respond appropriately or to figuratively put ourselves in another's shoes is an important life skill that not only points to the health of an individual, but is pivotal in achieving a safe and humane society.

As the last article was wrapped up, a news story erupted involving the death of Fanny Albo, a 91-year-old BC resident. This is an example of a case where this important societal element of empathy was apparently missing.

Fanny Albo and her 96-year-old husband were both in the acute care unit of the Boundary Regional Hospital in Trail and by all accounts Fanny was dying. During this time, hospital staff separated her from her husband in spite of repeated requests from the family for the couple to remain together.

Mrs. Albo was moved to a different hospital more than 100km away in Grand Forks and died alone within 48 hours of the move.

Understandably, the couple's children are outraged at this disregard for their feelings and Mrs. Albo's husband was devastated that he could not be with his wife for her final hours and was not given sufficient time to say goodbye to the woman he shared life with for 70 years. He died a few days after his wife.

Now the provincial health minister has ordered an investigation to find out why the Albos were not allowed to spend their last days together.

The question here is not about the quality of physical care this couple received. No one is arguing that Mrs. Albo would have lived another 10 years if she hadn't been moved - her family knew she was dying.

What is under question and rightly so, is the seeming callousness of the decision to separate a couple and family unnecessarily.

The family objected to the authoritarian, dictatorial manner in which they were treated. They were not listened to. This is clearly a case where those making the decisions did not put themselves in the Albo's shoes. It was equally clear from the media frenzy that ensued that many others found in easy and distressing to empathize with the Albos.

Budgetary concerns and bed shortages are unfortunate realities that need to be addressed in our current health care system, but we are seriously misguided if we allow these concerns to rule the day ahead of caring for our patients as individuals.

I really can't imagine many scenarios where this situation would have unfolded as it did if the staff involved had stopped to ask themselves how they would feel if the Albos were their parents or if they themselves were facing the end of their lives and forced to be separated from family.

Our hearts go out to the Albo family and this entire scenario confirms my feeling that we need an infusion of empathy in our society at all levels and that this has to be taught to our children and modeled by adults in every field so that we can ensure the continuation of our famously compassionate society. The most important component of the recommendations emanating from the investigation of this incident is to somehow improve empathic communication with patients and families. This has to be part of the health care culture.

We want a society where human dignity is valued and we don't allow the poor, elderly or ill to be tossed aside for the sake of efficiency or profit.

I hope that as the Albo investigation wraps up, it will bring about a change to the attitudes and policies implemented by institutions throughout our province, it is unfortunate that we were too late to give the Albos the care they deserved in their time of need.


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