This I Believe . . .

One of my favorite tea mugs has a painting of a cat on it, with the words “What people really need is a good listening to.” Not a day goes by that I am not reminded of how true this is. If only it were as easy to apply that principle across the board! . . . . Dr. Alicia Conill emphasizes the importance of listening in healthcare – indeed in our lives as a whole. She says, “Listening to someone’s story costs less than expensive diagnostic testing but is key to healing and diagnosis.” Hers is a loving reminder to us all of the importance of taking time and being in relationship.

Alicia Conill

The text of her essay for This I Belive is reproduced below. Listen to her read it at NPR.org.

According to thisibelieve.org,

This I Believe is an international project engaging people in writing, sharing, and discussing the core values that guide their daily lives. These short statements of belief, written by people from all walks of life, are archived here and featured on public radio in the United States and Canada, as well as in regular broadcasts on NPR. The project is based on the popular 1950s radio series of the same name hosted by Edward R. Murrow.

Listening Is Powerful Medicine

Dr. Alicia Conill is a clinical associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. A native of Cuba, Conill also directs a nonprofit that teaches patients and caregivers how to better cope with chronic illness and disability.

Weekend Edition Sunday, February 1, 2009 · I believe listening is powerful medicine.

Studies have shown it takes a physician about 18 seconds to interrupt a patient after he begins talking.

It was Sunday. I had one last patient to see. I approached her room in a hurry and stood at the doorway. She was an older woman, sitting at the edge of the bed, struggling to put socks on her swollen feet. I crossed the threshold, spoke quickly to the nurse, scanned her chart noting she was in stable condition. I was almost in the clear.

I leaned on the bedrail looking down at her. She asked if I could help put on her socks. Instead, I launched into a monologue that went something like this: “How are you feeling? Your sugars and blood pressure were high but they’re better today. The nurse mentioned you’re anxious to see your son who’s visiting you today. It’s nice to have family visit from far away. I bet you really look forward to seeing him.”

She stopped me with a stern, authoritative voice. “Sit down, doctor. This is my story, not your story.”

I was surprised and embarrassed. I sat down. I helped her with the socks. She began to tell me that her only son lived around the corner from her, but she had not seen him in five years. She believed that the stress of this contributed greatly to her health problems. After hearing her story and putting on her socks, I asked if there was anything else I could do for her. She shook her head no and smiled. All she wanted me to do was to listen.

Each story is different. Some are detailed; others are vague. Some have a beginning, middle and end. Others wander without a clear conclusion. Some are true; others not. Yet all those things do not really matter. What matters to the storyteller is that the story is heard — without interruption, assumption or judgment.

Listening to someone’s story costs less than expensive diagnostic testing but is key to healing and diagnosis.

I often thought of what that woman taught me, and I reminded myself of the importance of stopping, sitting down and truly listening. And, not long after, in an unexpected twist, I became the patient, with a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis at age 31. Now, 20 years later, I sit all the time — in a wheelchair.

For as long as I could, I continued to see patients from my chair, but I had to resign when my hands were affected. I still teach med students and other health care professionals, but now from the perspective of physician and patient.

I tell them I believe in the power of listening. I tell them I know firsthand that immeasurable healing takes place within me when someone stops, sits down and listens to my story.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.

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