Picture of Giuliana Guarna

Giuliana Guarna is a medical student in the Class of 2019 at McMaster University


Knock, knock.

I pulled back the large door and stepped into the room. It was early in the morning — just after 6 am. She was lying in bed, awake, with a smile on her face despite the fact that she was post-op. The evidence of surviving rounds of chemo were borne out in front of me. Her hair was peach fuzz, peeking through a silk turban wrapped around her head. Her cheeks were like little Timbits, but her frame was swallowed by her hospital gown.

“Oh, hi. Come in. Let me turn on the light.”

I walk to the foot of the bed. The sun had not yet peeked out from under the shades. The room was illuminated by a yellowish-white hospital glow as she pressed the switch.

“How are you today?”

“So much better than yesterday. I walked around already, a few laps this morning.”

I wondered, “Why was yesterday so terrible?”

“Well, you see, I have no family and no real friends. My boyfriend left me. I had to pick a substitute decision maker and they aren’t even family.” She paused. “I’m a fighter, though. I’m going to fight this. I’m so happy I have a good doctor taking care of me — and you guys. Everyone has been so great. I’m going to fight it.”

I smiled. I was glad to hear she felt supported despite everything going on.

“Tell me about what it takes to get into medical school.”

I was stopped in my tracks, stunned by her interest in me. In one of her bleakest moments — at 6 am, no less — she wanted to hear about me.

“Well…” I launched into the process, discussing the highs and the lows. My hopes for the future and where I saw myself in a few years’ time. I then turned back to my list of questions.

“Are you short of breath? Lightheaded?”

Though I knew there were more patients to see, I made sure she had no other questions before I turned to leave. As my hand touched the doorknob, I heard her say, “You know, there are two ways physicians can listen to people.”

I turned back around. “How’s that?”

“Well, you can listen to converse, or you can listen to understand. Physicians should really be listening to understand. I feel like your team has understood me.”

I paused, taking a few seconds to soak it in. This patient had reminded me why we are all here in the first place: to understand our patients. I thanked her for keeping me humble and reminding me how to be a great future physician.

As trainees, we are constantly searching for pearls that will help us to serve our patients — past, present, and future. Walking out of the room, I knew I would hold this patients’ words as one of my most treasured pearls.


Note: All characters in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.