Content Warning: This piece contains references to suicide and sexual violence.
Sitting in an unfamiliar room on my fourth day rotating at the women’s clinic, I faced an unforeseen situation. Our next patient was a young woman in her mid-30s, visiting the VA Women’s Clinic for the first time. Her medical records revealed distressing facts: she was suicidal, depressed and screened positive for PTSD.
Upon entering her room, I found her in tears, haunted by past experiences. As we spoke, I learned about her loyal companion, Molly, her border collie, who had been her solace through years of untreated major depressive disorder and PTSD. She confessed to a recent suicide attempt, prompted by online research and talking with strangers on the internet about ways to successfully end her life. She had even gone to the top of a building and looked out but could not bring herself to jump. The thought of leaving Molly behind was too much for her.
I sensed this was not her first time having these thoughts. Her eyes were aimed at the floor as she tried her best to keep the tears from falling. Her voice was soft. She was tired of struggling without proper help and lived in constant fear, never knowing when she might decide to end her life.
She shared a horrific incident from her time at the Army base — a night when she was forcibly trapped in a bathroom and subjected to abuse. Since then, every male figure resembling her attacker had triggered haunting memories, leaving her on edge.
I realized that in my approach, she saw echoes of her abuser and an imbalance of power. I made sure to sit down in the chair next to her, eye level, to show her I was here to listen. No longer did I need my stethoscope. I had my most powerful tool of all, my listening skills. She bravely opened up about her past, encouraged by a friend to seek help and hopeful for a better future.
By the end of the visit, we fast-tracked her into the VA’s behavioral health care team, where a specialized psychiatrist for military sexual abuse would attend to her. As the visit concluded, she thanked me for listening and providing the help she desperately needed. She no longer saw a threatening figure in me but someone who could gradually help her heal from years of trauma and mistrust.
This encounter profoundly impacted me, an aspiring physician. It highlighted the vital role of communication in healthcare and the power of listening. Regardless of our expertise, we can all lend our ears and withhold judgment, making a tremendous difference in our patients’ lives.
I chose to share this experience to inspire other budding physicians and remind seasoned professionals of the importance of listening to their patients. We must be advocates, standing beside those whose pasts remain untold and futures uncertain.