I walk into the room behind Steven, letting the door close behind me. On my first day volunteering in the hospital, my task is to observe Steven, a more experienced volunteer, as he visits with patients. We begin by meeting Amanda, the first patient on our list. Amanda sits upright on the bed watching the television above with a bored expression on her face. She turns her head to face us.
“Good morning, how are you doing today?”
“Oh, I’m doing just fine,” she begins while leaning in towards us. “You won’t believe what happened to me though.” She then regales us with a tale of the events leading up to her current hospitalization, many of her other hospitalizations and various other small stories of her life. As she talks, I inspect the room to ensure that all the basic items were clean and updated.
I proceed to observe Steven. I notice his perpetual smile as he talks with Amanda. Although he was smiling before we entered the room, this moment exemplifies the importance of a smile when interacting with others. Because of Steven’s pleasant personality and body language, Amanda visibly relaxes her posture and speaks with a familiarity beyond that which our brief conversation might suggest. After some time I enter the conversation, my nervousness fading.
After the conversation, Steven asks if Amanda has advice for me to improve as a volunteer. She answers, “He should talk a little more.”
As we leave the room, Steven tells me some ways to maintain conversation with patients. One such way is to notice the small things in the room and use them as talking points. He also suggests being an active listener. The advice seems obvious after he mentions it, but this seemingly simple task is not always easy in practice. Although my hands tremble a little, I am eager to implement this wisdom as soon as possible.
Before I walk into the room of the next patient, Steven tells me that I should greet the patient on my own this time. I begin to grow nervous again. As I enter, I notice that the patient is lying back on the bed. His wife sits on a chair beside him looking through her phone. I ask how they are and if the patient feels comfortable during his stay in the hospital. I also inquire about the food.
“Oh, the food’s great here,” he says. “I should know since I’ve been in a lot of hospitals.”
When I lean in and ask more, he and his wife launch into a tale spanning his college years to the present. As he relays the precise details of sneaking a beer keg into a college dorm, I sit in amazement: a simple question had led to such a large response. Their enjoyment when retelling this story is obvious from the broad smiles on their faces. As the conversation progresses, my tense shoulders begin to loosen.
However, the conversation that began with positive memories soon shifts to the present which is much darker. I learn that the two have been going to the hospital on and off for years now leading to financial difficulties. I learn that their frequent sickness makes it more difficult for them to connect as well with their friends which leaves them a little more lonely. My role shifts from being a casual observer to active listening and empathizing. In this moment, I feel privileged to be graced with such an intimate discussion.
As I motion to leave around 40 minutes later, he looks up and says, “I think you’ll be a great doctor because you listen so well. You have a kind soul.”
As I thanked him for his words, I was struck with surprise. I felt my actions were not special by any means. I simply did what any caring person would do; it made a huge difference for this patient.
At the end of the day, I thought about both of these experiences. After reflecting on my discussion with Amanda, I noted that she was able to relax and share her experiences more comfortably because Steven prompted much of the conversation. However, for the second patient my commitment to listening provided comfort and courage to share his story. I realized that being a good physician requires knowing both when to speak and when to listen. In a single word, this skill is communication. By communicating effectively, patients are willing to share and ultimately create a positive experience during their stay.
I volunteer regularly at that hospital and see many patients on any given day. Every time I enter a patient’s room, I recall my first day, square my shoulders and relax. I am not a physician and the assistance I can offer for a patient’s medical problem is minimal. With every patient I see, I more clearly understand that it is not my medical or scientific knowledge that connects us. The small but meaningful touches, such as an ever-present smile and an attentive ear, make the difference between performing a routine and providing care. When I finish another day of volunteering, I know that I have connected with a few more people, which always makes the experience worthwhile.