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Honoring humanity: lessons from a medical encounter

At the heart of medicine lies humanity. This narrative documents a personal story where I felt deeply connected to this principle as a first-year medical student.

I felt nervous and unsure as I was about to practice medical interviewing with a standardized patient. The scenario was unfamiliar to many of us, involving the care plan for a patient (“Chris”) with stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. Together with his partner (“Jordan”), they were in the office to discuss transitioning his care from the hospital to home, where he could spend the remainder of his time with his family. From the moment I sat down, I was captivated by this real, raw, and deeply human conversation.

Chris recounted the stages of his journey—the diagnosis, surgery, recurrence, and the tremendous toll that chemotherapy has taken on his body. “I never expected to find comfort in clutching onto a cold, steady toilet before chemo,” shared Chris. Jordan, breathing in tandem and never letting go of Chris’s hands, conveyed his support through tender gestures and gazes.

Compared to previous exercises, this encounter posed a unique challenge to my ability to establish rapport, demonstrate compassion, and connect with patients on a personal level. During this exercise, I discovered the great power and value of silence, giving space for emotions and introspections to unfold. In those moments, I delved deeper into Chris’s journey, understanding his fears and witnessing the depth of his love for his partner and family. These insights were not gleaned through questions and answers but through respecting their shared decisions and the emotional undercurrents that words could barely capture.

“I just want to go home, spend time with Jordan and my children, and have a good Manhattan,” Chris said with a touch of humor. Despite the emotional weight of our conversation, Chris occasionally infused it with warmth and humor, which added even more dimensions to the interaction. I felt deeply privileged that Chris entrusted me with such intimate end-of-life discussions. His attention to everyday details added a poignant depth to his narrative, reaffirming that medicine is fundamentally about embracing the human experience—honoring each individual’s humanity, values, and aspirations.

During our feedback session, I asked Chris whether he felt traumatized by having to disclose his difficult journey and very personal decisions. While admitting the inherent difficulty in revisiting such a journey, Chris mentioned that he found liberation rather than trauma in sharing his choice to forego further treatment and prioritize cherished moments with his loved ones. Later on, Jordan commented that when I acknowledged his role as a supportive partner, it made him feel “visible, vital, and bigger than the cancer itself.” This revelation struck me with surprise and gratitude, highlighting the profound impact that compassionate words from health care professionals can have on patients and their loved ones.

When the session ended, I rushed out the door to ask Chris if I could give him a hug. I would like to extend my sincere gratitude to Chris and Jordan for participating in medical education and letting me experience something magical and transformative. Despite being a simulation, this was the first time where I personally engaged in a discussion on the profound topic of end-of-life care. As I reflect on this insightful, emotional, and inspiring experience, I am filled with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to embodying compassionate care and honoring humanity and connections in my future training and career.

Ellie Qian is a medical student.


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