To prepare for hospice I read essays and listened to interviews that reflected the intensity and gravity I expected from the experience. I watched documentaries from the perspective of hospice physicians and patients grappling with the heartbreaking decision to withdraw treatment. I imagined myself at the heart of these trying conversations and prepared myself for emotional visits that would confront the subject of death and dying openly.
As is often the case, my experience was not what I had prepared for. The difficulty I encountered was rarely existential; rather, it often had to do with the mundane and awkward social interactions I experience everyday. I had prepared to provide emotional support, reassurance, and empathetic care, but I had forgotten that first I needed to make conversation, find common interests, and form a connection. During most of my visits I rarely thought about death; I was focused on remembering details of a patient’s life and thinking of questions and anecdotes that might prompt a fond memory or soothing dialogue. I had expected to use emotional and intellectual competencies necessary for comforting a close friend or grappling with an upsetting topic. Instead, I found myself practicing skills I used when meeting new people and making conversation at dinner.
Just as I was surprised to face these challenges, I didn’t expect the marked impact they would have on me. I no longer feel as squirmish when a natural pause occurs in conversation. My experience with non-verbal and hard-of-hearing patients has shown me that spoken dialogue is only one way of communicating and forming a connection.
As an aspiring physician, I tend to imagine the inspiring, emotional, and existential aspects of a career in medicine. However, my experience with hospice has illustrated that many challenges I’ll face are likely more mundane than I expect, and though I may not anticipate them, my experiences outside of medicine and school have prepared me to approach them with passion and empathy.