Humility, in the sense of listening more than talking, is part and parcel of a virtuous approach to patient care.
Explore This IssueDecember 2020
In the two clinical scenarios, each patient taught us something valuable about human nature. Anna is dying, yet her focus during the encounter wasn’t on herself, but rather on the physician. What a brave and resilient person! She shows us the human capacity for dignity at the end of life. Her appearance with the wig, lipstick, fingernail polish, and pink nightgown demonstrates that she’s in charge of her life even to the end, not allowing her impending death to change her approach to living. (There’s also a lesson to be learned by the medical student who subtly derided her appearance.) How our fellow human beings face death and dying presents an opportunity for us, as physicians and people, to respond to them in more appropriate and personal ways, with which we previously may not have been comfortable. Anna also teaches us to pay attention to our own and our loved ones’ wellness, for someday we will be where she is. She reflects our own mortality and helps us cope through her demonstration of moral courage and autonomy. Life is fragile, but worth living in full to the end.
Dennis also teaches us about how to deal with indescribable challenges in life—surviving combat in Korea, fighting alongside brothers-in-arms and watching them die, suffering frostbite, being captured and tortured, and enduring and escaping a prisoner of war camp. He demonstrated the highest level of personal courage and perseverance as a soldier. Many combat veterans are reticent to readily tell their stories to anyone except fellow veterans; humility comes from a well-placed and well-discharged sense of duty. Listening more than talking is part and parcel of a virtuous approach to patient care. In Dennis, we recognize strength in the face of adversity, and a commitment to the ideals of honor, duty, and country.
When we actively and empathetically listen to patients, we’re able to better understand who they are as human beings and then apply that knowledge to the care we offer them. The successful physician-patient relationship depends upon our ability to use the art and science of medicine to properly care for patients. What we can learn from them about human nature and dealing with illness is best learned not from textbooks, but from our listening to, observing, and understanding them throughout our entire careers.
I extend my personal and professional gratitude to all of my patients encountered over my 50-plus years as a physician for what they’ve taught me about life, living and dying, and how to be a better physician and human being. I couldn’t have done it without them.