Skill and Empathy

When I walked in on the first day, I was ecstatic when the nurses and aides instantly knew that I was a volunteer and were ready to train me. In many of my previous volunteer positions, I showed up the staff had no idea what to do with me. They simply said “go get some” for the patients with no other direction or introduction to said patients. Inevitably, I would end up sitting around feeling useless. This experience was different: the welcoming attitude I felt from the nurses was exciting and set the tone for a much more fulfilling volunteer position.
Learning the technical aspects of patient care, such as bed turning, washing the patients, helping them move and aiding in other nursing activities like wound care has made me more confident in addressing patients themselves. I felt more prepared to interact with them both as a physical aide and as an emotional one. By knowing that I am able to at least take care of many of their physical needs without running for the nurse every two minutes, I felt that I had something to fall back on when I did not know how to approach their emotional needs. This “safety net” allowed me to reach out to patients more easily. I feel this has vastly prepared me more for medical school than any of my other classes or activities. Before working on the hospice unit, I had no idea how to even make small talk with a patient, let alone one who was most certainly dying. By following the nurses, I feel much more comfortable.

However, I am not sure any patient experience will compare to the four hours I spent with an older woman suffering from brain cancer. She was more than happy to do most of the talking, and our conversation ranged from the fanciful to the harder parts of her life. One of the qualities that stood out to me was her determination to give advice about life to me, particularly about romantic relationships. Albeit some of this advice was rather questionable and harsh to men, but she was absolutely insistent that I remember all of it, especially as she did not have a daughter, and, “women needed to share these things”. I suppose that this was her way of trying to pass on her legacy or wisdom and to be fair to her, it worked. I will never forget this woman or the conversation we shared.
One of the most common complaints about doctors is that they are too disconnected or do not listen to their patients. My hope is that I can look back on this conversation and remind myself to see the patients as people with their own extensive lives, some more eccentric than others, and not just see them as simply patients. I hope that this experience will remind me to be empathetic and compassionate throughout my career.