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Dave Thomson: Empathy, Not Sympathy

Dave and a furry helper

BC Disability

May 9th, 2022

A former military officer and prison guard, Richmond Centre for Disability's Dave Thomson spent years in high-stress environments before it caught up with him.

Dave now uses his experiences with stress and chronic illness to help others, and on May 12th will be presenting his workshop, Empathy Instead of Sympathy Please, to increase positive thinking about chronic illness.


Dave Thomson's life was built around stress.

The former "stress junkie" worked as a nightclub bouncer, military officer, and maximum security prison guard, finding himself in situations where conflict and intensity were the norm.

Although he often felt exhausted and aching, he attributed that to work stress and old sports injuries adding up, not illness.

But things kept getting worse, and soon it was clear that the issue went beyond a bit of wear and tear.

A fall down the stairs at home was the first major warning sign. Dave took a hard landing and couldn't move for 2 weeks, with his recovery also being slower than normal.

He eventually returned to his job as a prison guard in Alberta, eager to show that he was fine, but it wasn't to be: on his very first call his body gave way again, and he fell on his face.

After a series of appointments it was discovered that, far from struggling with sports injuries, he had a very rare form of fibromyalgia - a "PTSD for the body."

He'd essentially become allergic to stress, and highly sensitive to stimuli such as smells and loud noises, causing his body to give out.

Upon moving to BC, Dave connected with the Richmond Centre for Disability

With his illness becoming more pronounced, and now unable to work as a prison guard, Dave embarked on a long journey of starting over and learning a new way of life.

He moved to Richmond to start fresh, and, alone in a new city, he was eager for connection and to discover the resources available to him.

That led him to the Richmond Centre for Disability (RCD), which he describes as a "community centre for people with disabilities."

It was here where he really started reflecting on his situation, and began using what he was learning to help others through their journey with chronic illness.


Dave became increasingly involved with RCD, and started helping plan Registered Disability Savings Plan workshops for the organization.

As he reflected on the changes in his life, he also got the idea to create his own workshop, based on his experiences living with chronic illness and becoming more comfortable with himself.

"With my illness I fall asleep walking, have cuts on my forehead from falls, and am unable to even sit at the computer and type."

"It took a long time to get to where I could open up about stuff like this. It was hard talking about what I couldn't do any longer."

It was hard talking to people about what I couldn't do any longer

On Thursday, May 12th, Dave will be running this workshop, titled 'Empathy Instead of Sympathy Please', which focuses on helping persons with chronic illness think positively, in a world where they are often the focus of pity.

"Sympathy has a place, but it gets hard if people are always feeling sorry for you or give the same advice over and over."

"If someone suggests trying turmeric or getting more sleep one more time, I'm going to strangle them."

Dave designed "Empathy Instead of Sympathy Please" based on his own experiences

Dave will also be running another workshop on May 31st. In recognition of National AccessAbility Month, the focus will be on practical skills and resources persons with disabilities can use for employment.

"We'll be talking about some really neat stuff, like how and when to disclose your disability, dressing for interviews and where to find work clothes, as well as learning about doing taxes."

The workshops are open to everyone, free of charge, and can be accessed through the ID and passcodes listed on the posters and RCD website.

And, as Dave notes, the need for workshops like these is growing.


With more Canadians becoming chronically ill due to the lingering effects of COVID, disability and chronic illness are becoming bigger issues.

Dave hopes this will spur new research, and in the meantime he's teaching a range of courses at RCD, including a guided imagery and relaxation course to help people manage their stress and energy levels.

For his students and anyone who's just started their own journey with disability and chronic illness, there are two pieces of advice that Dave starts with.

"Perspective's important, and knowing what your body's like gives you a roadmap. If you look at your condition as something which helps you know more about your body, it doesn't feel as bad."

"Also remember that there are no able-bodied people out there; they're just pre-disabled. At some point, something catches up with all of us, and that's why we're all in this together."

To learn more about the Richmond Centre for Disability and Dave's upcoming workshops, send a message to Dave at


Spencer van Vloten is the editor of BC Disability. To get in touch, send an email to!


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