Empathy: Lost or Found in Medical Education?

Sonal Singh, MD

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In This Article

An ICU in the United States

I flew back to the United States the next day and returned to the grueling life of residency. Earlier in my residency, I had taken care of an elderly, non-English-speaking Bosnian woman who had immigrated to the United States a year prior to our meeting. She was admitted to the ICU with respiratory failure and worsening pneumonia. She had no prior hospitalizations. Our communication about her complex care was limited to telephone conversations with her adolescent granddaughter, the only English-speaking member of the family. She improved medically with intravenous antibiotics and respiratory support but became increasingly confused, agitated, and tearful and wanted to leave the hospital despite our efforts to convince her that it would be medically unadvisable. We were puzzled by her behavior. We tried to use a telephonic interpreter's service only to discover that she had never used a phone in her life. We showed her how to use the phone. Later, I discovered that holding her hand and sitting down with her for a few minutes would calm her down. She recovered well and was discharged home. Initially, the team had done all the medically appropriate interventions, but we did not make an effort to communicate with her except for brief phone calls to her granddaughter. Perhaps it was the language barrier. Perhaps we were too busy to do it.

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