Kathy Torpie

Kathy Torpie

June 24, 2013

EDMONTON – Kathy Torpie has a dual perspective as both a health care professional and as a patient.

In 1994, while in New Zealand, a drunk driver hit her car head-on. The fit body in which she took pride was crushed on impact. She had multiple rib fractures, and both lungs were punctured. Her tibia was crushed.

She woke up in intensive care, no longer active or independent. She was a helpless patient on life support. Her eyes were swollen shut, her jaw wired shut and there was a hole cut in her throat. She could not eat, drink, see or speak.


"Worst of all, when my face hit the steering wheel, although luckily there were no cuts, every bone in my face was shattered," said Torpie.

For the next 17 years, she underwent numerous facial surgeries.

Torpie authored the book, Losing Face, about her traumatic experiences. Those experiences were rewarded with important insights about the nature of the patient experience and what constitutes quality health care.

A psychologist and keynote speaker at medical conferences, Torpie has personally experienced health care services at almost every level of care.

She spoke on Becoming a Patient . . . Making the Transition at Covenant Health's June 13 ethics conference, Risky Business. Her area of expertise is the patient experience and the role that interpersonal and communication skills play in the clinician-patient relationship.

"Like me, most first-time hospital patients are truly capable individuals prior to their admission."

She advised health care professionals at the conference that their customer service must give way to patient care.

"Attending to the patient experience requires attending to the unique individual whose experience this is," said Torpie.

Health care must shift from patient-centred care to relationship-centred care. Some clinicians have the skill to be fully present with a person in their suffering and employ the idea of communicating with compassion.

Rather than leading to "compassion burnout," this approach actually improves the clinician's experience. When a doctor experiences an emotional connection with his patient, he feels he is doing meaningful work.

"When you convey important information to a patient, it's important that you engage the patient," she recommended.

A doctor must not resort to doling out one-size-fits-all advice. Instead, if a doctor can engage his patient in a meaningful way, it is more likely the patient will follow his directives.

Torpie could always tell when a health care professional was treating her as a person, not simply tending to her injuries.


A wonderful nurse in intensive care would gently touch her on the shoulder and say, "Good morning, Kathy!" To that nurse, she was more than just another patient. Even when he spoke about seemingly trivial things, such as the weather, their conversations were significant. She felt safe around him and still has gratitude for his care.

Torpie said different aspects of health care are in conflict. Beyond clinical needs, there are also financial, personal and ethical needs. Those needs are often in competition, and to meet one means sacrificing another.

"Medicine is far more complex today than it ever was in the past. In an environment this complex and changing this rapidly, collaborative teamwork has become imperative," said Torpie.