No one else I encountered during my third year of medical school at Albert Einstein College of Medicine struck me quite like this patient.
He was propped up in the hospital bed, gasping impossibly for air, with not a hint of relief in sight. A harrowing whistle of pain escaped his lips and wove its course to my unready ears, triggering within me a stream of sorrowful thoughts. And when I thought I could bear/> no more, his piercing eyes met my own and willfully divulged the wealth of suffering contained within.
It grieved me to witness this man’s skirmish with life and fear that he might perish right before me. Though he clearly had not bathed for a prolonged period of time, I stood beside him, wishing I could do something—anything—to help this poor man but unsure of what I could add medically beyond what the team was already doing.
I found out more: He was homeless, had a history of tobacco use and emphysema and was being treated (not for the first time) for alcohol withdrawal and aspiration pneumonia.
Immediately, a slew of judgments crept into my conscious awareness. I pitied him, certainly. He could not articulate his needs or even remotely recall the date or his location, he scored abysmally when I assessed his risk for alcohol withdrawal and he constantly yelled at the staff and verbally threatened them.
I knew, however, that this man required time and support. Rather than backing away and choosing an “easier” patient with whom to work, I forced myself to accept the tremors, the overwhelming miasma and the horrifying sound of a man fighting for dear life. I came in and out of his room, listened to his lungs and offered him words of comfort and a gentle touch.
And finally, after days of visits, he said quietly to me: “Thank you, and God bless.”
A tradition of humanism at Einstein
This story is the one I highlighted in my essay for admission to the Gold Humanism Honor Society.
The society, founded by the Arnold P. Gold Foundation in 2002, has been an integral part of the Einstein community since 2010. It honors medical students, residents and faculty who are committed to community service and who embody the ideals of compassion, empathy, altruism, respect and integrity in patient-centered care. I am humbled to be part of a tradition of humanism at Einstein, which constantly pushes students to delve more deeply into their experiences—and into themselves.
Medical students are selected by their peers through a survey given at the end of the third year of clinical instruction. Students are asked to choose classmates who exemplify empathy in interactions with patients and colleagues, who have worked to improve healthcare systems and upon whom they would want to rely for their own personal medical care or in a medical emergency.
Students with the most votes are nominated for induction into the society and asked to compose an essay detailing an experience in which their humanism was challenged.
I am grateful for having had a part in caring for the patient I described earlier and for having received his recognition, however brief, for my efforts.
Though I do not expect acknowledgment from my patients, I am thankful for the snippets of gratitude that are expressed, for they serve to inspire me further in delivering quality care. They also remind me of the value of every patient as well as my wish to never let anyone down.
Mentorship and humanism
Under the leadership of Mimi McEvoy, M.A., R.N., associate professor of clinical family and social medicine, and Staci Pollack, M.D., associate professor of clinical obstetrics & gynecology and women’s health, the group of inductees meets monthly in their fourth year to discuss issues relating to humanism in medicine and to work on an outreach project to benefit the community at large.
The inductees of the class of 2015 have created as their project a mentorship program for third-year students, who usually find that first year on the wards to be extraordinarily demanding of their time and often struggle to maintain a sense of self amidst a seemingly endless barrage of criticism, presentations and a need to impress.
The inductees hope to reignite the passion for humanism in those where it may have become lost and to keep it always burning for others.
This past November, twenty-three students from the class of 2015 were inducted into the Gold Humanism Honor Society. Dr. Miriam Schechter, a pediatrician at Montefiore Medical Center’s Comprehensive Family Care Center and co-clerkship director for the third-year pediatrics rotation, was selected by the students to receive the Leonard Tow Humanism in Medicine Award and induction into the society for her selfless dedication to patients, families and students.
Aside from being a lifelong honor, membership in the society is a calling to focus on humanism with patients and in all interpersonal interactions beyond, as well.