Mr. B wore an oversized shirt that read “Dad knows a lot but Grandpa knows everything.” When I first sat down across from him, he began telling me about his cancer. He bluntly described his situation without any sugar-coating in an “I’ve got a few weeks left until I kick the bucket” kind of way. In the middle of his story, he paused and asked me what he was supposed to be talking about in our hour together. I was there as part of the Professionalism, Communication and Reflection course at the UVM Larner College of Medicine, with a goal to get to know a patient in my first few weeks of medical school. As a first-year student, I couldn’t offer any medical advice. I responded that he was free to chat about anything on his mind, as I was there simply to listen. His eyes immediately lit up and with this new sense of freedom, he completely changed directions. He started telling stories about camping trips with his family, his grandson’s first day of Cub Scouts, the day his youngest daughter was born, and memorable drives up to Maine with his wife. He supplemented the stories with photos of his friends, wife, kids, grandkids, and even of the family dogs. Reflecting on his memories with his loved ones, he teared up, and I did too.
Eventually, we circled back to his illness. Just prior to our encounter, Mr. B had been given a prognosis of about three weeks left to live. I asked him how he planned to spend his remaining time in the hospital and his response was, “talking to anyone who’s willing to listen.” It wasn’t until that moment I realized how valuable my presence alone was to Mr. B. Although his illness is what brought him to UVM Medical Center, it wasn’t the main topic on his mind that evening. Mr. B chose to use our time to tell me the memoirs of his loved ones, as they were what gave his life meaning. Simply sharing his stories with me brought him a renewed sense of purpose, and his joy was infectious.
Initially, I had identified Mr. B in my head as cancer patient on Baird 4. However, after one hour of listening he became so much more: he was a giving husband, dedicated father and grandfather, adventurer and entrepreneur, with a dry sense of humor and an appreciation for Burlington sunsets. The conversation I had with Mr. B represents the kinds of discourse from which meaningful relationships are built. Though learning his perspective as a patient helped inform his medical care, learning his perspective as a person was invaluable in getting to know who he really was. I’m grateful to have had Mr. B as my first patient, as our experience instilled in me the power of listening and being present with others. It reminded me that being an exceptional doctor and “caring for” patients means more than prescribing treatment based on my scientific knowledge. It means combining that knowledge with empathetic attunement to what my patients really need.