A chance encounter in Chicago: lessons in compassionate medicine

It was a frigid January night in Chicago. My whole body felt cold as flurries of snow landed on my clothes, prompting me to quickly enter the restaurant to find my friend.

The dinner began to unfold how I had imagined. My friend, a fellow medical student, and I eagerly chatted about our life updates. I shared stories from my days in the hospital, and she described the progress of her research projects. We agonized over the menu, with almost every item grabbing our attention.

While laughing and enjoying each other’s company, we mused over how much we loved our nights out together in Chicago. Neither of us needed to wake up early the next morning, so we decided to stay put for some time after finishing our carefully chosen meals. Suddenly, a waiter, who was not assigned to our table, approached us and asked if we were involved in the medical field. He must have overheard our conversations interspersed with medical student-speak. He then stated that he wanted to tell us about his previous experience as a young adult with leukemia. Having finished my month-long hematology-oncology rotation just the day prior, I was instantly intrigued.

He pulled up a chair and proceeded to tell us about his journey. He shared what differentiated his favorite physicians from his less favorite ones: their ability to treat him as a person, rather than solely as a patient. We delved into what this meant to him. He added that physicians seemed to overlook the importance of various components of the patient encounter, such as the first question they choose to ask the patient during rounds. Also, where physicians position themselves in the room can communicate about how much time they are willing to spend with patients and their families.

The waiter remarked that all physicians can inform patients about their diseases, how they are responding to medication, and the available treatment options. However, what he, and other patients, often care about the most is how much a physician makes them feel like a person and how well the physician can maintain the patient’s sense of humanity in the face of illness. The waiter then discussed a potent example of this. One of his most positive memories was when a certain physician asked him about his hobbies, and he discussed his favorite video games. The physician subsequently facilitated a way for the waiter to play his video games in the hospital room. A simple question, leading to a simple act, meant the world to him because it ultimately helped the waiter feel more like himself before cancer landed him in the hospital.

The waiter proceeded to inform us that the genetics of his form of cancer were unique, as his specific translocation was rarely seen in acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He agreed to participate in all research that physicians asked him to consider engaging in. His reasoning was that he wanted physicians to learn from his case for the benefit of future patients. I was touched by this. But what touched me the most out of our entire conversation was that he went out of his way to teach my friend and me lessons that you cannot learn from a book or lecture in medical school. He wanted us to learn from his story and perspectives on the art and science of medicine.

Before I knew it, the restaurant manager was asking us to leave the restaurant so that he could close it for the night. My friend and I were the last customers to exit the restaurant – not only with our expectedly full stomachs but also with our unexpectedly exceedingly full hearts.

Since that night, I have carried these prized lessons into my patient encounters as a medical student. I have continued to observe the powerful impact of how an extra question, inquiry, or comment to patients can make them feel heard, unrushed, and most importantly, human.

Our conversation strengthened my aspiration to become an especially empathic and humanistic physician – one who consistently honors the dignity of patients – irrespective of how life-limiting their illnesses may become. Thank you, waiter, for truly teaching me about medicine at a restaurant on a Saturday night when I least anticipated it. I owe you.

Emily S. Hagen is a medical student.


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