Just to Talk
A student talks about listening
I walked into the hospital for the first time with a white coat around my shoulders. It was very early during first year, and I had no clue what I was doing wearing this powerful symbol of knowledge and competence. It was my first hospital interview for the POM-1 class. The task was to talk to a patient, take as much of the medical history as possible, and then return to our mentors to present the patient. My patient was an elderly woman who had been admitted to the hospital because of complications with her diabetes. She lay flat in her bed and appeared both ill and disinterested when I entered the room. I thought “this isn’t going to be fun.”
As I began to talk to her, she grudgingly responded to my questions. “Yes, my foot hurts. Yes, I have hypertension and high cholesterol.” After I finished the History of Present Illness and Past Medical History, I asked about her family. Her face lit up. “No one has asked me about my family yet. I would love to talk to you about them!” For the next thirty minutes, she talked about her son and daughter and her three grandchildren, and how tough it was for her with both children living on the West Coast. She told me how difficult it was being a single mother trying to put two kids through college so they could have safe and secure lives. The only words I managed to say the entire time were, “Oh yes” and “Mmmhmmm.”
My mentor then knocked on the door and told me we needed to head out. I looked down at my notepad, saw that I had hardly gathered any pertinent medical information, and felt annoyed at the interruption. As I left the room, I looked back at a woman sitting up in bed and smiling, but with tearful eyes. Her parting words were “thanks for listening.”
I realized then that patient care is not simply about getting every tiny detail of a medical history or figuring out the proper dose of medication. Often, a patient simply wants to tell her story. In today’s healthcare world it is often impossible for healthcare providers to take the time to listen. But as medical students we have both time and opportunity to simply be present with our patients. All the responsibilities of care have not yet been dumped on our shoulders. Some may think this means we can’t really help the patients we see. But if we take the time to talk, we can bring a little joy into our patients’ lives. We can earn a smile.