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Heart to Heart: Empathy in Medicine


“There are two important rules to being a doctor,” a mentor once told me, his eyes gazing straight at mine. “First, you shouldn’t choose your specialty based on its pay, but based on what you truly care about. Second, the patient’s needs always come before your own needs. In other words, the patient always comes first.” A radiology professor told me this while I was shadowing him as a high school student.

Although I listened, the weight of his words did not truly sink in until one day in the grocery store when an old man asked a simple question that revealed what really makes people who they are. People were milling about the aisles searching for their goods. I raised a box of cereal for my companion to inspect only to be told to put it back and lift a box of granola bars instead. I was in Costco helping an elderly man with his groceries as part of my volunteering time at Eastside Friends of Seniors. At first, the thought of helping him did not seem too exciting, especially since our meeting was scheduled for seven o’clock in the morning. I had anticipated having to deal with a man similar to my grandparents: unaccommodating, unsociable and physically frail.

Sure enough, he wanted me to tell him the price of each item that I gave him as well as the prices of all similar brands. As he was hard of hearing, he needed me to speak so loudly that passersby turned their heads in curiosity. He insisted on pushing the cart himself even though his legs would visibly quiver, and he had to take breaks every two minutes to catch his breath. With a fake smile plastered on my face, I could only sigh inwardly in boredom as I waited for this encounter to pass.

Then, he asked me one simple question that completely changed my view of him 00 and of people in general. While I rattled off the various brands of pasta sauce, he turned to me and asked, “Which one do you think I should get?”

For a moment, I could not answer him. What would prompt this old man to so quickly respect the opinion of a young man whom he had known for only an hour? I felt my irritation about dealing with him dissipate as I pondered this question leaving only a desire for its answer. I decided to ask about his family; to my surprise, he openly shared about them and their involvement with the field of medicine. As he spoke, I was drawn to his eyes which seemed to convey a deeper meaning.

Every time he mentioned his wife, his eyes misted over with forming tears; when he mentioned his children, I saw loneliness. Slowly, I began to understand: He not only needed help to lift his groceries, but perhaps also wanted someone to converse with after his many years of isolation. The more he talked in his grouchy, irritable tone, the more I empathized with his situation and circumstances. He did not complain because he was angry but rather because he desperately needed a response.

As I firmly grasped the man to help him into his car seat, I was reminded of Dr. L’s words about empathy. They are vital for me as an aspiring doctor. In my career, I must care for others, understand their problems and remain patient — three behaviors that are unfortunately uncommon in today’s competitive society. My experience with this elderly man made me develop a deep respect not only for him, but also for everyone else around me. All people have dreams, weaknesses, strengths and stories that they need to tell.

Ever since that day in the grocery store, I have volunteered at least once a month for other senior citizens. I get to know their stories and try to share the understanding that I have gained with the world. No matter whom I encounter and no matter what hardships I face, being able to understand and empathize with others will always make the day worthwhile. Even though I wanted to be a doctor before this realization, this is what really taught me that being a physician is not only about amassing knowledge, but also being able to apply that knowledge to others’ problems, with no expectation of praise. Only by putting others’ needs first can we, as future physicians, find happiness and contentment in our careers.

Kartik Iyer Kartik Iyer (2 Posts)

Pre-Medical Guest Writer

University of Pittsburgh


Kartik Iyer is a pre-medical student at the University of Pittsburgh, where he double majors in Neuroscience and English Writing. He actively researches the neuronal basis of drug craving relapse, as well as potential treatment. He also volunteers extensively with Foodlifeline, and has already delivered 5000 meals to his hungry local neighbors. Since he achieved the Top 20 in the nation in the USA Biology Olympiad and a perfect SAT score in high school, he runs USA Biology Olympiad and SAT paid tutoring classes. In his free time, he enjoys writing and contributing to his writing group. He also occasionally explores the city new cuisines with his friends.