As I started my third year of medical school on the consultation psychiatry service, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was naive, afraid, and honestly unprepared. Or that’s how I felt anyway.
My first patient was a man who was referred to our team because of depression. I was sent to talk with him before the rest of the team, including the attending physician, made its rounds. The man was 77 years old but looked more like a older 50. As I introduced myself, a gentle smile formed on his face.
He said he enjoyed talking to students–that it invigorated him. He said we gave patients more attention than they received from anyone else on the medical staff. I felt awkward, it being my first day, but at the same time I felt a connection with him. As I asked about how he felt, his mood seemed to change. He sighed and told me the doctors had recently discovered he had metastatic prostate cancer.
When the cancer was first discovered, it was benign, and he didn’t follow up with any treatment. He felt reassured from what he read that it would not progress further, but he soon discovered he was wrong.
He told me he now felt like what he was dealing with was unfair. He said he’d raised two children in the harsh confines of North Philadelphia, worked for years in construction, and had never done anything wrong.
So why me.
I expressed my empathy in simple and polite terms.
What else could I do? I had no way to magically cure his disease.
I had nothing but words. But in such situations, I have since come to realize, words may the most underutilized but most effective “therapy.”