Nurse Literally Feels Your Pain

Megan Pohlmann of St. Louis is a mirror-touch empathic synesthete

Posted Oct 01, 2015

Courtesy Megan Pohlmann
Source: Courtesy Megan Pohlmann

Synesthetes the world over are known for their contributions to the arts. But in the future just as many will likely be known for their extraordinary abilities in medicine.

That is because some of these neurological outliers experience mirror-touch synesthesia, a highly empathic trait . They can read a room when they walk into it, feel the same emotions as people near or far whom they focus on, and often get actual physical pain symptoms to match someone who is injured.

The trait is due to mirror-touch neurons in the brain, which were first observed in 1996 in macaque monkeys by three researchers. Not only did they fire up when the monkeys performed activities, but the same clusters lit up on brain imaging machines when they observed other monkeys doing so.

The preponderance of these neurons in synesthetes is an invaluable gift that some people use in medical careers.

They are the new rock stars of the synesthesia set.

Recently, the Pacific Standard featured a story on Harvard medical resident Joel Salinas. Dr. Salinas is a mirror-touch synesthete and can even feel the physical sensations that non-communicative patients are experiencing.

At St. Louis Children's Hospital in Missouri, nurse, wife and mother Megan Pohlmann read it and knew exactly what Dr. Salinas was going through.

"I remember one patient in particular who just spoke to me with every facial expression," she recalls. "It was like we were so much on the same wavelength that I didn't even have to ask if his medication had headaches as a side effect. I just had an overwhelming urge to bang my head on something to make the pressure stop. A few hours later that's exactly what he started doing. It turns out that headaches were a common side effect of the drip he was on. I was able to recognize his experience right away (he wasn't old enough to talk or express how he was feeling). It was hard for me to explain to the rest of the team how I knew his head hurt, though. I wasn't as comfortable talking about it then as I am now."

I couldn't wait to hear more. This is our Q&A:

What is it like to have mirror-touch synesthesia and work as a nurse?
MP: I don't know any other way. But I've thought about it a lot over the last few years, and I think I must have a very different experience from other nurses. Having mirror-touch synesthesia, I experience the pain and emotions of those around me. Sometimes I can separate my patients' feelings very easily, other times I can not. I haven't figured out where the "on-off" switch is.

What are some of the most amazing experiences you've had this way?
MP: One particularly strange experience happened to me when taking care of a child who was passing away. I remember the anxiety of the whole family, the physician, the patient. We sang "Jesus Loves Me" and it was incredibly sad in the room. When the child passed away I noticed I could no longer feel him. I noticed it a couple minutes before the physician actually told everyone that he passed on. I was then amazed to feel the anxiety lift from the entire room. Everyone was still very sad, but there was also such a burden lifted. It gripped at my heart, but it was also one of the most beautiful experiences at the same time. It was like I got to feel a little bit of the peace that could be waiting when we leave this life.
I was working one night when a patient down the hall from mine passed away. As you can imagine the other parents in the unit get very emotional when this happens to another child because it brings reality closer to their situation. I noticed the mother of my patient was having a particularly hard time grasping their reality that night. I could hardly be in the room with her without crying- she made me miss my own children so much, even though I knew they were safe at home. I went in the room to talk with her. She was sitting in the tall chair a few feet from her son. This was in the ICU and it had been weeks since she was able to hold him, or even see him with his eyes open. I said to her, "I can feel what you're feeling, it's pouring off of you. You want to hold him. I understand. Bring your chair over to the bed." I fixed her pillow and placed it next to her son's head. I put the crib railing down so she could get as close as safely possible. Then I sat with her while she sobbed. When I left the room several other nurses asked me what I said to her to make her so upset. I just kind of laughed because I was the only one who could tell that she had tears of joy mixed in with her regular tears. She thanked me later.
I have a good sense of being able to tell when patients are adequately sedated or if they are in pain under their paralytic.
I have a really hard time with one particular patient population. The anxiety that some patients feel is so overwhelming to me that I have to take frequent breaks and deep breathe. I can't imagine that if I'm feeling a small bit of what they are going through what it must be like for them. They are incredibly strong! Traumas are also difficult sometimes. I find I can separate the physical pain sensations easier than I can the emotions though.
I'm a good preceptor (I train new nurses) because I'm good at feeling when they've reached their learning limit, when they're having a difficult time adapting, when they need a break or a heart to heart. I'm good at being able to advocate for a family member/parent as well when they just can't put into words what they are feeling. I feel it too so I can talk with them about it and advocate to the team what will make things go as smoothly as possible for the whole family.

Most of the time I'm OK with seeing an injury until I learn how it happened. That's when the intense spine tingling feeling I get comes out of nowhere. It starts in the center of my back and springs out my extremities. A similar feeling to being on a roller coaster. Show me a cut on your finger and I'll guess how many stitches you'll get. Tell me you sliced it on a tin can and I'll almost throw up.

Does it make you a better caregiver?
MP: Absolutely. There's been a lot of talk lately about whether nursing is a "talent" or not. I think it is. Everyone has gifts that they are born with. Most synesthetes are artists or musicians. I always wondered why I didn't end up with a career like that. I like art and music, but my true calling has always been reading people's needs and tending to them. Since this is something not everyone can do I consider it a talent just like playing an instrument or painting a masterpiece. You can teach anyone how to play or paint just like you can teach anyone the skills needed to be a nurse. One won't be successful as a nurse if they don't posses the careful mix of tact, caring, poise and grace that make up the "talent" that is nursing. Talent is the difference between playing "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and synesthete Franz Liszt's "Liebestraum." Or in the nursing field, the difference between taking care of your patient and truly caring for your patient.

Are you able to talk with other medical professionals about this?
MP: I've tried but I'm usually just met with blank stares. I've been pretty open about my other synesthete experiences and that is received relatively well. Mirror-touch is a type that is pretty hard to explain, and really hard to believe. People think that I wouldn't be good at caring for kids that have traumatic injuries or wounds because it's overwhelming for me to see. But it really does make me more perceptive to what the kids need, so that makes the unpleasantness I sometimes experience worth it. I feel like I care for my patients in a way that no one else can.

Did you see the story of the empathic doctor and relate?
MP: I did! I've never heard of anyone else in the medical field with this same type of synesthesia until I read his article. I'm fascinated that he has similar experiences. I felt like I was reading about myself.

What other forms of synesthesia do you have?
MP: Too many to keep track of, really! Color grapheme, spatial time, colored and textured personalities, number line, textured sounds (only colored sometimes), spatial sounds, colored body parts, colored kinetics to name a few.

What do you think is the value of synesthesia in general?
MP: I hope that learning about it is going to bring more awareness to the human consciousness in general. There is tremendous value in learning how others perceive things. I hope it can eventually lead us down the road to understanding more complex conditions such as autism or schizophrenia.