The Importance of Listening

As a pre medical student over the past four years at the University of Pittsburgh, I have gone through bouts of uncertainty as to if I should pursue a career in the medical field. I have always enjoyed science courses and discovering how things work, however, I was worried about whether the sacrifices would be worth it.

My participation in the Pre-Med Hospice Program has been one of the most instrumental decisions in my life as it has driven me to officially apply to medical school this cycle (in two weeks!). I have had the opportunity to foster personal connections with multiple patients on 3A, but what I will always remember is my time with Mr. Adams in particular (name changed for privacy). Mr. Adams is a pleasant, quiet man and after talking to him multiple times I learned that he loves coffee. It became our routine every Friday morning to go down to Ceramics and get coffee. I struggled to talk with him the first couple times while we drank our coffee as I tried to fill every break in the conversation with meaningless words. What I determined quite quickly is that Mr. Adams didn’t want conversation all of the time and he actually preferred silence. This was quite difficult for me to grasp at first, but once I stopped focusing on myself and started focusing on his needs, this fact was right in front of me.

My role as a volunteer has deepened my understanding of medicine and patient needs. As an extrovert – not every patient needs an overly energetic person in their room, or somebody that can talk a mile a minute, but a patient always needs somebody who desires to discover what they need. I have entered situations believing that I knew best what a patient wants. However, the only way to ensure that you know what a patient wants, is to ask and listen.

My experience with Hospice has also taught me the importance of patient autonomy and a patient’s right to choose. A common view in modern medicine is striking the balance between quality and quantity of life. However, what I have learned is that the common view is not important for individual patients. Understanding when to keep fighting and when to enjoy the time that one has left is one of the most difficult problems facing medicine today, but it is a problem that the physician and the patient must work through together. There is no universal answer; it is a patient’s right to choose.

The reflection sessions and the ability to learn from Chaplain M., his wife Annie, and Chaplain D., all of whom are experts in this field, has been extremely eye opening and has allowed me to think deeply about my role in medicine and also as a volunteer. This component of the program has absolutely deepened my experience as a Hospice Volunteer and has taught me the importance of self care and spiritual awareness when working in end of life.

The Pre-Med Hospice Program has led me to discover how much fulfillment I, as a volunteer, get out of hearing patients’ needs and being able to make a difference even in a small way, such as getting a patient a cup of water or going down to get coffee and sitting in silence. Although there are many roadblocks in medicine and it is a long, difficult, and expensive road, I am excited for what is yet to come, and I have my experience with the V.A. Hospice to thank for this.