“I guess I’ll just die and save them money,” said a 40-year-old patient a few months ago at Stony Brook Hospital Emergency Department, where I work as an intern. Her insurance had refused to pay for the scans needed to diagnose her returning ovarian cancer. Not knowing what better I could do, I sat down to signal my willingness to let her vent her feelings to me. She said she had pleaded again and again, but they didn’t care. She wasn’t a human being- a mother with young children- but just an expensive liability. When she went away a conundrum lingered in my mind. I was sad that I couldn’t do anything. I was glad that I could listen, but did that really matter?
The summer after my freshman year of college I traveled to Honduras on a medical brigade. We established temporary clinics to triage, assess, and distribute medical supplies to isolated villagers in the mountains. One patient was a 16-year-old mother with a 4-year-old daughter and a newborn son, who was morbidly sick. There was nothing we could do for her, as a team of medical volunteers with limited resources. Dr. G, the doctor I was shadowing, explained the situation and supported her with his words. She smiled, thanked Dr. G for his time, and exited the room. I knew in my mind that not everyone could be saved (that was instilled in me on the first day of my EMT class) but my heart still sinks whenever this happens. That day, I had an epiphany: when nothing can be done to save a patient, I can still make a small difference with my words to help a patient cope.
Dr. G explained to me afterwards that the baby would most likely die. The nearest hospital was hours away, and the family certainly could not afford it. Moreover, there was a shortage of doctors, because most Honduran doctors obtain their license in Honduras, then come to America for more opportunities. He wasn’t one of them, though. He believed in “real medicine”: helping and comforting as many people as possible regardless of their ability pay. We all want to help, but sometimes nothing can be done. It is those times where communication and sympathy are the only effective medicine.
I view myself as both savvy and interested in communicating effectively with people. Realizing the importance of this skill for a medical career, I decided to pursue a minor in writing and rhetoric, which includes courses such as Writing for the Profession. I also pursued leadership opportunities by running for the executive board position of Chaplain for my fraternity. As Chaplain, I enhanced my ability to work collaboratively, counsel others, and advise them. I have further developed my communication skills while interacting with patients as an EMT as well as an emergency room intern. These invaluable patient interactions have allowed me to advance my communicating abilities, and learn to provide ease with my words.
A career in healthcare is a perpetual commitment to helping. Sometimes helping may simply entail having a conversation with a patient, as in the case of the 40-year-old with cancer, or the young mother from Honduras. When people seek medical attention, they are in a state of nervous vulnerability. They want to feel safe, and it is the physician’s role to provide solace. A physician’s job is to provide two types of care: clinical care via medication or procedures, and humanitarian care via communication. A physician’s words can heal long before any medication or procedure can. It is through communication, that comfort can be provided even when the clinical care fails. There will inevitably be situations in which a person cannot be healed. But it is those moments where our words and compassion are the only healer. I believe that my background in communication has allowed me to develop a strong foundation in the art of communication, which I hope to continuously augment. My goal is to become a physician who heals through modern medicine, alongside the power of communication.