Empathy is often helpful – particularly in healthcare and education. It is also a characteristic that University of Colorado College of Nursing Associate Professor Deborah Kenny, PhD, RN, tries to model in her classroom.
“I know that a lot of my students have jobs and kids, so every day I ask how they are doing,” Kenny says. “If I have a student who is having difficulty, then I want to know about it.”
Kenny’s research with unhoused women veterans requires an extremely high degree of empathy. A military veteran herself, Kenny (a retired lieutenant colonel) frequently employs her empathy skills in work and life.
Last summer, Kenny was a recipient of empathy and kindness when a stranger from another country befriended her after a transatlantic flight from Scotland made an emergency landing. The episode left 252 passengers stranded in an airport near the midwestern coast of Ireland.
“Sometimes your faith in humanity gets restored, and she did exactly that,” Kenny says of her newfound friend.
Making the best of a bad situation
Kenny was returning to the U.S. after participating in the 33rd International Nursing Research Conference in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her first flight home was canceled, and the rescheduled flight did not go well.
“When we took off from Edinburgh, I noticed we weren’t flying very high,” she says. “The pilot announced he was diverting the flight to an airport in Shannon, Ireland. When we landed, I immediately noticed there were ambulances and fire trucks lining the runway. Apparently, the pilot called ‘mayday.’ Fortunately, we didn’t go down in the ocean.”
Shortly after arriving in Shannon, the passengers were informed that the flight would be canceled while a new plane flew in from the U.S.
“I was quite upset because I was trying to get back to Colorado to start my annual trip to Iceland,” Kenny says. “I already delayed it by one day and when they canceled the flight, I realized I had to cancel the trip.”
“We decided to make the best of it. I was touched by her kindness and the easy way we became friends.”
– CU Nursing Associate Professor Deborah Kenny, PhD, RN
Somewhat distraught, Kenny says she was standing in the airport in tears, waiting to hear where the passengers would spend the night.
“Then, this person comes up and asks, ‘are you okay?’ and I told her why I wasn’t,” she says.
The woman who approached Kenny was Rosie Onoh, a retired attorney and teacher of sociology, anthropology, and psychology. Onoh resides in Scotland but was born and raised in Nigeria. She was planning to fly to Boston to visit family and tour the United States, but the flight cancellation adversely delayed those plans.
“We decided to make the best of it,” Kenny says. “I was touched by her kindness and the easy way we became friends. We ate lunch together. We stayed at the same hotel. They wouldn’t take our luggage off the plane, so we ended up walking into the village to pick up some toiletries because we didn’t have anything.”
While stranded in Ireland, the two discussed their families, education, nursing, law, race theory, and other interests until they were able to catch a connector flight from Shannon to Newark, N.J.
A small mutual-admiration society
The mutual love of education gave Kenny and Onoh plenty to talk about.
“Education is super important for both of us,” Kenny says. “We both grew up pretty poor. She was one of 10 children. Her parents put a premium on education, and all of their kids grew up to be doctors and lawyers. I liked how we could speak deeply about issues that were important to us.”
For her part, Onoh says she appreciated Kenny’s kindness and openness.
“Debby was one of the few on the flight who had a smile on her face, looked relaxed and approachable – regardless of the uncertainty and trauma everyone was going through,” Onoh wrote in an email. “The wisdom she reinforced in me are resilience, fortitude, and patience. She was not frazzled by the whole ordeal.”
Onoh added that Kenny affirmed and strengthened her view of the U.S. While in Northern America, Onoh and her family crossed over many states on the way to Elvis Presley’s 14-acre mansion estate, Graceland in Memphis, Tenn. Overall, she was impressed by the vastness of the country, and the friendliness and courtesy of its people.
Takeaways from the encounter
Though the two friends only spent a couple of days together in person, they stay in touch through their devices regularly.
“Hopefully I will be privileged to come to Colorado and see her someday,” Onoh said of Kenny.
Even though she lost her vacation, Kenny takes great comfort in gaining a friend who reminded her of the power of empathy in both personal and professional interactions.
“It goes to show that anywhere, anytime, you can make friends,” she says. “And she’s going to be a lasting friend.”