One Question
By Tina Nguyen, MSIII


It's 5 AM and I'm walking down a dark hospital hallway, thinking, "Aww man, I hate waking people up at gosh-awful hours. I'm for sure gonna get yelled at again."

Knock knock

"Ms. V, Ms. V."

I shake her gently

"Oh hi, honey. What can I do for you?"

Shock! Yay, maybe I'm won't get yelled at today!

"Good morning Ms. V. I'm sorry for waking you up so early. I'm a medical student working with the treatment team and just wanted to see how you did last night. Any complaints?"

"Oh you know, nothing has changed. I just hope I can I get out of here soon. It's my daughter's birthday in a few days and I'd rather spend the rest of my time at home with her."

As medical students, we are taught that empathy will help build rapport with patients and because of that they are more likely to volunteer more personal information to us. However, the big question is "How?" How does one express empathy? Through facial expressions, other non-verbal communications, or by saying something like, "I understand that it must be difficult. Anyone in your position would feel that way."? It just sounds so fake and superficial, similar to a bad and overused pick-up line. Nothing seems appropriate.

Silence is my chosen answer, not because it's easy but because most of the time I have no words. My mind is racing with thoughts such as "Oh my gosh, what do I say? What do I do? Oh no, this is horrible. I'm so bad at this. Now what? How do I continue? Breathe! Woooo-saaaa…"

"They told me they are waiting on some test results before I can leave. Do you know when those will be done? Time is so precious for me right now and I hate just lying here waiting."

I look at her lying in an old hospital bed, dressed in a hospital gown, bundled in a floral robe, and her head wrapped with a Disney Princess bandana. Pictures of her daughter sit on the bedside table. Flowers are carefully placed throughout the room.

Looking at me with a hopeful expression, waiting for an answer.

I can't bear to tell this nice lady that she probably will not be going home this week! But I have to say something.

"I know that we are waiting for a few tests," I finally manage. "My attending will be in a little later to discuss them with you. He will have a better idea of when you can go home. When is your daughter's birthday? Is she coming in today to visit you?"

Great job; a non-committal answer!

She begins to tell me about her daughter, how proud she is that she recently graduated from Columbia University and that she will indeed be here later for a visit. Ms. V's face lights up like a Christmas tree when she talks about her. I can feel how proud she is of this daughter that I've never met. Joy, happiness, and energy just radiate from Ms. V.

One question about her life to show Ms. V that I care about what matters to her.

One question that takes away her worries for a moment in time.

One question that brings enormous joy to her face.

One question is all it takes.