Kevin Cheung ‘18 is the Morse College Cahoon Summer Fellow and participates in all aspects of the Dwight Hall Summer Fellowship program. He is coordinating the Living History Project for the summer, which is a Dwight Hall provisional member group that provides a team of undergraduates with the opportunity to improve the patient-centered experience at Yale-New Haven Hospital (YNHH). To this end, students are properly trained in patient-centered interviewing with the goal of composing patients’ non- medical histories into a narrative, which can be shared with the patient, the patient’s family, and the patient’s medical team. In this way, the project aims to bring the patient’s personal story to life so that the medical team can provide more holistic care; moreover, it provides undergraduates the opportunity to experience patient-centered interactions. Kevin is currently working with faculty advisors to determine an appropriate form for the publication of compiled narratives of patients who wish to share their stories to inspire others who share similar health struggles.
Kevin recently submitted the following reflection as part of a report on his weekly activity during the 2016 Dwight Hall Summer Fellowship Program.
Last week, I had an extremely moving experience through one of my interviews. The interview with this particular patient started out quite normal. She was a woman in her late 60s who had immigrated to the U.S. from another country in her 20s. At first she seemed fairly reserved, answering my questions briefly and succinctly (some other patients, by contrast, use my questions as jumping points to talk on and on if they are chatty). We proceeded in this manner for a while before one normal question (“Did you work after high school?”) elicited a curious reaction. She responded, “Yes. I had to…” and trailed off, suddenly looking off with a pained and hesitant look. And with that, her story slowly but surely began to truly unravel. She had run away from home after high school, and gradually she pieced together the story of why. It was a story filled with abuse at the hands of her father. The experiences she told me about broke my heart. She permitted me to share her story, but I still feel uneasy about disclosing too many specifics her or the abuse she endured.
I exercised my empathy as much as possible, but this was unlike anything I had encountered before. The tears she shed as she spoke were unlike the tears of other patients I had met. Many patients cry during the interview when recalling a loved one who has passed away, or out of a multifaceted rush of emotion when hearing me read their life narrative to them for the first time. This woman’s tears, however, were born from a pain so personal and deep that I began to wonder whether she had ever shared it with anyone before. I have comforted friends and family in my own life, but never a stranger who was revealing such intense decades-old trauma.
I went and wrote up her narrative, framing it through the lens of resilience, strength, forgiveness, and moving on (based on the remainder of our interview) and I returned to her room to read it to her. I asked her if she wanted to make any changes, then left and made final laminated copies. I returned once more with her final copies, and this time I asked her in a bit of a roundabout way, “I know you said that converting to your new religion has helped you cope and come to terms with your past on your own, but have you been able to do that with other people too?” She wasn’t sure what exactly I meant, so I asked her more directly, “Have you ever told anybody about this?”
“No,” she said, “just you. You’re the first person I told.” In her nearly seven decades, her story had never fully left her lips, and she had never discussed with anyone the abuse she had gone through. I was shocked but also moved. Something compelled her to open up to me, someone who she had just met, about what she had chosen to never tell before. She explained that something about our interaction put her at ease, and she felt that it was right to share her history with me. Earlier, she had explained that in recent years, converting to Judaism has helped her learn to forgive, move on, and put the past behind her. But even so, she now had the undeniable look of having just lifted a burden, even if just a little, off her chest.
I knew in the moment the gravity of our interaction. I was feeling a lot of different emotions, and I knew that this encounter might serve as a great anchor for some piece of writing I’m hoping to publish as a reflection of my experiences this summer. I asked if I could write about our interaction, and to my surprise, she said, “Yes, go ahead. You can share my story to whoever and wherever.” Any piece of writing I prepare would of course be completely de-identified, and I will struggle with moral and ethical questions about how much I should actually share, but I was surprised by how immediately willing she was for me to share her narrative.
That day, we said three goodbyes. A minute after our first goodbye, she walked out of her hospital room to the hallway where I was sanitizing my hands. She wanted to thank me once more, and I thanked her too, reiterating how honored I was that she felt comfortable enough to share her story with me. Like the first goodbye, this one was awkward. It felt unnatural for me to leave now, especially after she had just opened up about her life. I started thinking about something that’s been nagging me for a few weeks now—sometimes it feels problematic for me to forge connections with patients, especially when the conversations are as intense as this one, and then flee after I finish the narrative, never to return or engage with them again. A few minutes later, she ran out of her room again, this time down the length of the corridor to the nurse’s station where I was standing. I think she thinking what I was thinking, that it felt like I was now abandoning her. She took my hand and held it for an extended amount of time, once more expressing her thanks.
I’m still thinking about this experience nearly a week later, and I’m certain I will remember it for some time to come. It’s one of those memories that I’ll look back on later in my career as something that really moved me. It has made me think about a whole set of questions that this short account here barely scratches the surface of. Beyond the effect of this woman’s individual heartbreaking life history, I began to feel the weight, power, and impact of the vulnerability and pain—both distal and proximal—that are magnified and intensified within the sterile walls of the hospital. What is the role of the physician for the patient, especially when the greatest pain in a patient’s life is perhaps not the condition or health concern they were admitted to the hospital for? What is my role for these patients as a non-physician and life history documenter? How should I approach the fact that sometimes I forge such impactful connections just to completely abandon them a few hours?