Empathy in modern society

Empathy, or compassion, is often the last trait we expect to find in modern society. But, that is only because we are wont to equate modernity with anonymity, depersonalization, and self-centeredness.

We seldom see the flip side of these traits: i.e., the growth in society’s capacity to rise above the traditional divisions of race, nationality, gender and class—and, thus, to see people only as they are, human beings who must equally contend every day with their dreams, aspirations, needs and fears.

The United States has always fascinated me for that reason. Created out of a conglomeration of races, nations and cultures, American society offers a template of modernity in both its positive and negative aspects. While drawing its boundless energy from this amazing diversity, America, at the same time, has not built a social order on any of the ready-made traditions and hierarchies brought in by the communities that have settled on its land.

This is a society that constantly aspires to develop a culture of its own, a universalistic culture that is blind to the privileges and restrictions of ethnicity, class, race, or language. Philosophers of modernity say that when people are able to rise above the obligations of kinship, nationality, race, or class, their loyalties tend to be commanded by a universal sense of justice and compassion. I saw this for myself in the most dramatic way possible in December last year, when Karina and I went back to the United States to be with our daughter and her husband for the birth of their first child.

As I wrote in an earlier column (“Time, lastingness, and gratitude,” 1/3/16), that visit was marred by the emergency hospital confinement of Karina on two separate occasions. In the first, she was brought to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in West Los Angeles for severe diarrhea and vomiting just a few days after her arrival in California. The facility is only 10 minutes away from the West LA apartment into which our daughter and son-in-law had moved.  This is also where their baby was delivered.

Severely dehydrated, Karina was put on IV fluids, tested and treated for an infection, and promptly discharged after two days. A week later, after I had joined her, I had to bring her back to the same hospital, this time for internal bleeding. Without being aware that she had lost a lot of blood, she complained of chest pain. Knowing she has two stents in her cardiovascular system, I was concerned that she might be having a heart attack. We rushed her to the nearest hospital we knew—Kaiser.

That experience gave me a glimpse of American society at its best. We were outside our comfort zone, and so the sight of compatriots in nearly every department at Kaiser was reassuring. Yet, apart from speaking to us occasionally in Filipino, the attention they gave my wife was substantially no different from the care they lavished on their other patients. But more to the point, we saw the same compassion and professionalism in equal measure among the non-Filipino staff. Any hospital in the United States is virtually a small version of the United Nations.

The gastrointestinal specialist, an avuncular Jewish doctor, came up to the room one morning to explain Karina’s condition and to dissuade us from taking our scheduled return flight to Manila the following day until he could manage the bleeding duodenal polyp.  With no way of getting a second opinion, we reluctantly agreed. He was not able to perform the excision he had in mind, but he managed to clip the lesion and stop the bleeding. He recommended that another surgeon, a young Korean doctor, perform a ligation the following day. This we declined, opting to have this done in Manila with the clearance of Karina’s heart doctors. It had been a week since her blood-thinning medications were suspended to alleviate the bleeding, and this worried me no end. I have to admit that I was also assailed by the thought that we might find ourselves not only indefinitely stuck in the United States, but also financially mired for the rest of our lives.

In the meantime, a “financial counselor” from the hospital had come to see us. Having been informed we were neither Kaiser members nor California residents, she kindly offered to put in a request to their main office so we need not be additionally burdened by the thought of having to raise money while abroad to pay the hospital bills. Without promising anything specific, she said she would appeal on our behalf for an easy payment plan. On learning we were both retired, she assured us not to worry and to try to enjoy the blessings of the Christmas season.

On the day of Karina’s discharge, the same lady, our guardian angel, came by and handed us a short letter from the Kaiser Permanente Medical Financial Assistance Program, stating that all charges for Karina’s entire hospital stay on both occasions were being waived. Unfortunately, she said, she could not do anything about the $1,000 deposit we had paid for Karina’s two visits to the emergency department. “I’m sorry about that,” she said, offering us a number we could call to request a reimbursement. Almost speechless, I stuttered, “We’re grateful.” Stunned by this overflowing generosity, we, of course, did not call the number she had given us.

Yesterday, our daughter rang us up to say that she had just received a letter from Kaiser.  Expecting a bill, she instead found enclosed a check for $1,000 in Karina’s name.

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