Fighting for Compassion in Medicine

For a new medical resident, or even an experienced doctor, the emotional toll of the job can be overwhelming. Dominic Vachon ’80, ’85 M.Div., a practicing psychologist, experienced it firsthand—he found himself burnt out, stretched thin, and emotionally detached from his patients, so eight years ago he came to Notre Dame determined to understand the scientific implications of compassion from a biological, neuroscientific, and psychological perspective. Now, Vachon is Notre Dame’s John G. Sheedy, M.D., Director of the Ruth M. Hillebrand Center for Compassionate Care in Medicine and is training the next generation of doctors to root their practice in compassion.

“Compassion is essential for patient care and it’s essential for the well-being of the clinician. The two go hand in hand,” Vachon explains. He underscores that compassion isn’t sentimentality, but is instead an applied use of skills, knowledge, and communication to foster successful doctor-patient relationships.

Sam Grewe ’21 has seen the impact of compassion from the other side of medicine. When he was 13 years old, Grewe developed osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, and was eventually required to amputate one of his legs. As a teenager undergoing treatments, surgeries, and therapies, he said his doctors, especially the ones who took the time to explain, who provided comfort, and who gave him a sense of agency, motivated him to work hard and do well. Now, he’s a Paralympic high jumper and is planning to attend medical school next fall.