I pulled back the large door and stepped into the room. It was early in the morning, just after 6am. She was lying in bed, awake. Her gaunt frame swam within her hospital gown. Her hair was growing back, just longer than a buzz cut. Her cheeks were sunken in. She looked child like on her hospital bed, the evidence of surviving rounds of chemo born out in front of me. She was bracing for a few more.
“Oh, hi. Come in. Let me turn on the light”
I walked to the foot of the bed. The sun had not yet peeked out from under the shades. The room was illuminated by a yellowish-white hospital din as she pressed her button.
“How are you today?”
“So much better than yesterday. I walked around already, a few laps this morning”
I wondered, “Why was yesterday so terrible?”
“Well you see, I have no family and no real friends. My husband left me. I made a co-worker my POA”
I was stopped in my tracks, stunned by her stark reality. While most people walking through cancer’s wrath have a full team of friends and family, she was here – alone.
“I’m a fighter though. I’m going to fight this. I know it’s spread around. I’m so happy I have Dr. X taking care of me though. And you guys. Everyone has been so great. I’m going to fight it”
I smiled. I was glad to hear she felt supported despite everything going on.
“Are you short of breath? Light headed?…” I asked my list of questions. She was much better than the day before. I knew there were more patients to see. I made sure she had not other questions and turned to leave.
“You know there are two ways physician’s can listen to people”
I turned back around, “How’s that?”
“Well you can listen to converse or listen to understand. Physician’s should really be listening to understand. I feel like Dr. X has understood me”
I paused. I took a few seconds to soak it in. This patient gave me one of the greatest pearls. She reminded me why we are all here in the first place, to understand our patients.
Thank you. Wherever you are now, thank you. As trainees we are constantly searching for pearls that will help us to serve our patients – past, present, and future. Thank you for keeping me humble and for reminding me how to be a great future physician. Your message will forever be one of my most used pearls.