Megan Pohlmann, a nurse, can feel her patients' pain due to a rare neurological condition call mirror-touch synesthesia

By Julie Mazziotta
March 02, 2018 01:18 PM
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Just 1.6 percent of people have mirror-touch synesthesia, an extremely rare neurological condition that enables people to feel others’ emotions and physical pain. Megan Pohlmann of Missouri is one of the few, and she uses her skills to help others as a nurse.

Pohlmann, 30, draws in the feelings of everyone she passes.

“For me, if I see you, I know you,” the mom of three told Glamour. “Just walking around every day I feel strangers hurting, and I feel it so thoroughly and completely. Crowds are overwhelming sometimes. If I’m at a funeral where some people are devastated, others are relieved, still others are awkward, and kids don’t understand, it’s exhausting — I find it hard to manage everything at once. Mainly, I just want to reach out and help people.”

Pohlmann was born with MTS, which is typically passed down genetically (her mother and sister also have a form of the condition), but there are so few cases of the condition that it wasn’t documented until 2005.

“I just thought I was overly sensitive,” she said. “I’d mirror my mother’s troubles and complex feelings I didn’t understand or know what to do with. Things would bother me so much more than they did other people. I would stress for someone else, and I couldn’t let it go because I would be so worried about them.”

Her urge to help others feel better led Pohlmann to become a nurse, though she still didn’t understand why she had this connection. Finally, six years ago, she was diagnosed with MTS, after reading about the condition online and meeting with synesthesia researchers.

“It took some convincing,” Pohlmann said. “But now I know I don’t have the regular gut intuition everyone else does — I have something extra.”

Pohlmann now uses her gift to help patients on a daily basis. In one case, she realized that a teen girl was recoiling every time a male relative walked in the room.

“My Spidey sense went off, telling me that something was very wrong,” she said. “I felt the urge to run away. My head started to spin, and I was sick to my stomach. I felt shame and that I would do anything to not be around this man. After a few minutes I was sure the girl was being abused.”

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Another time, she started getting headaches while tending to a baby in the intensive care unit, helping doctors discover the child was having an adverse reaction to the drug he was on. He was taken off the drug, and the next night when she visited him, he was much improved. He was “a different baby,” she said.

For most of her career, though, she struggled to manage her condition.

“An injury, it gives me chills, like that gut drop when you’re on a roller coaster,” she said, adding that feeling the pain and learning how it happened — “that takes it to a whole other level.”

And Pohlmann could feel that many of her coworkers and patients doubted that her condition was real.

“It was hard to gain confidence as a new nurse while feeling and absorbing the doubt anyone else had in my abilities,” she said.

But Pohlmann is starting to embrace her MTS and figure out how to hone her skills.

“It takes a lot of practice,” she said. “Ratcheting it up is easier — I visualize my personal space surrounding the other person’s. Then I can feel them more. Filtering someone else out is harder.”

One of her sons, Benjamin, 3, is starting to show signs of MTS, and Pohlmann worries that she’s overloading him with feelings he doesn’t yet understand.

“But I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t function without my MTS—I rely on it so heavily,” she said. “And I think if we all paid more attention to our empathy, that could solve a lot of problems. Sometimes just listening and acknowledging someone’s feelings is enough to make a difference.”