Simple, but Powerful Medicines: Patience, Listening and Trust

By the end of my time at Davidson, I had become so accustomed to immediate results. After a long evening session in the library, elegant graphs, lengthy Spanish sentences, and even chapters of my thesis would appear before my eyes. It was so satisfying to see my ideas and efforts rapidly crystallize into a tangible product (a metaphor for my organic chemistry professor, Dr. Stevens).

Thus, when I first began my fellowship at Mountain Area Health Education Center (MAHEC), I myopically assumed that I would instantly see “results” in all of my projects. I thought to myself, “I am going to make a radical impact, immediately”. How idealistic of me! My sense of time was completely skewed. It can be very difficult to change an individual, a community, a culture or a system. Difficult, but still possible. Through both my research and clinical roles at MAHEC, I have learned to embrace my work with a new sense of patience.

As a research fellow, I am involved in two projects. One project is a community education program for long-acting birth control, which aims to reduce unintended pregnancies in two surrounding rural counties in western North Carolina. Since the topic of birth control can be controversial, we recruited 15 local community members to help us design a culturally-sensitive birth control message and figure out appropriate ways to spread it. Although designing our own campaign is much more time-intensive than distributing existing posters from an established birth control campaign, our thoughtful approach will hopefully have a long-term impact because we are developing a culturally-specific message that will actually resonate with the people in our target communities. This project has shown me the vital importance of patience. My other main research project is a study on childhood trauma and the social determinants of health. I appreciate this research project because it has enhanced my understanding of the psychosocial factors and human behaviors that affect health.

As a community health worker, I get to apply what I’ve learned in my research and address some of these psychosocial factors and behaviors with actual patients. In essence, I help patients follow their treatment plans and engage in behaviors that positively impact their health. Helping patients adopt a healthy behavior, such as eating a more nutritious diet or quitting smoking, usually entails changing a deeply ingrained unhealthy habit. This aspect of my work has tested my patience in a new way. It may be one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done, given that humans are creatures of habit. During the first few months of my fellowship, I felt frustrated. I kept asking myself: “Why am I not seeing results? How do I motivate my patients to change their behaviors? Where does motivation even come from?”  I contemplated this last question for a while. When I asked Cathy, my wonderful boss and mentor, for advice, she encouraged me to take time to learn more about my patients’ interests, activities, goals and dreams. So, I started listening.

I learned about my patients’ lives. I listened to their stories. I learned what brings them joy and meaning. Although listening seems like a simple task, I have found it to be one of the most crucial clinical skills. After learning what things are important to to my patients, I am more effective in helping them adopt healthier behaviors because I can encourage and motivate them in a personalized way. This approach requires more time and patience, but it’s worth it. Additionally, I have observed a powerful side effect of listening — it builds trust; it demonstrates to patients that I am invested in their stories, instead of merely being interested in their medical progress.

I am especially grateful for my impact fellowship because it has enabled me to understand these lessons before I enter medical school and begin my career as a physician. In my medical school personal statement, I wrote the following sentence: “I grasped the power of listening and the importance of making patients feel heard.” From my work at MAHEC, I have learned that it is so crucial to not only listen, but also to make patients feel heard, recognized and validated; to bring compassion and to be really present with patients in the midst of their vulnerability, pain and illness. That is how a lot of the healing happens. Listening, trust and compassion are some of the most powerful medicines I’ve seen.