His eyes are hidden beneath a pair of shades. I wish I could see them. A tweed cap, or as I like to think of it, a “grandfather” cap, covers his head. He leans his back against the chair with his hands resting on a cane.
There are days where I feel like my medical education has trained me to act. We are good actors and actresses. It can feel like we play pretend in the third floor clinical suites of our building. We memorize a script, a list of questions, and try to insert an empathetic nod here and there “to let them know you care.” There’s even a camera.
But here in the real world at Miriam Hospital, I can’t act. Or rather, I don’t want to. People, especially patients, would see right through me.
So I’m torn. I don’t want to come back empty-handed to my doctoring mentor, so we fly through the script.
Past medical history?
We go over allergies and medications, surgeries and hospitalizations.
He answers kindly, understanding I’m just a medical student who is still learning.
I jot down hypertension, statins, penicillin.
He also discloses he has HIV.
I pause and look up.
The next set of questions on the script would have been, “When were you tested? What year was that? Have you done anything to protect yourself?” But I don’t want to pass this by. I don’t want to just merely jump into the next set of questions, the review of systems, the vital signs. I want to hear his story.
“Can you tell me more?” I ask.
He ekes out a thin smile, and beneath the shades, it seems like his eyes are smiling, too.
During the next few minutes, he dives deep into his past. He reveals a history of hurt, heroin, pain and mistakes. He talks about his brothers and family — how they all tried to help him. Then one day, his wife told him something has to change. He took a good look at himself, met his eyes in the mirror, and realized he needed help. He came here, to this clinic, decades ago, and he is thankful.
“I’m alive. I didn’t think I would be here,” he says. My heart sits, humbled. He takes off his sunglasses and smiles again. He tells me how his wife rallied behind him, how hope kept him going and how his belief in a better tomorrow sustained him. He told me the advice he wanted to give to medical students: “Take a moment to hear someone’s story.”
As I meet more patients and hear their narratives, this is a theme I have noticed and embraced. Medications may keep a person alive, but it is something bigger and greater that keeps them going. Perhaps the electronic health record can’t code for “hearing someone’s story,” and maybe we’ll never get reimbursed for that, but encounters like this are invaluable.
He is one of the many patients who have reminded me that medicine is so much more than prescriptions and biology. It’s more than just taking the history. I want to hear his story.
As our time is ending, I meet his eyes, and thank him.