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Teaching and Learning Moments

The Gift of Receiving

Hsiao, Victor

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doi: 10.1097/ACM.0000000000003061
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It was a typical day at the community clinic—the day had just started, but the schedule was full and there were already multiple walk-ins on the waiting list. As a first-year medical student, my goal was to gather a patient’s history efficiently without making either the patient or myself feel too awkward. Having started school only a few months before, I also did my best to learn and keep up.

Looking back, I now realize that my preceptor had been very gracious that day, assigning me a patient coming in for a typical diabetes checkup. However, at the time, everything still seemed completely new to me. Mustering up the courage to go talk to my patient, I was getting up from my seat when my phone buzzed. I took a quick peek, looking for an excuse to prepare for a few more minutes. It was a message from my sister: “Did you get the text?” As I read the next line, the world seemed to move in slow motion: “J was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma.”

All the questions and phrases that I had previously been rehearsing immediately slipped away. The only words that occupied my mind were “stage 4 lymphoma.” I didn’t know what those words meant other than that J had really advanced cancer. I had just seen J a few months before, and he had looked like his usual self. How did things change so fast?

My mind continued to spin until I eventually realized I was supposed to be talking to my patient about his elevated blood sugar. My preceptor saw me as she passed by, about to meet with her next patient. She gave me some quick encouragement and advice, but none of it registered. My eyes were glazed over, and my face likely showed a mix of sadness and confusion as I asked to take a few more minutes before talking to my patient. She said yes but followed up with a question of her own: “Is everything okay?” I asked if we could step aside.

In an empty room, I shared the news, trying to hold in my emotions.

I don’t remember the exact words my preceptor said to me, but I do remember that she offered her condolences and walked through what the diagnosis likely meant. Based on our past conversations about the importance of Christian faith to me, she shared a Bible verse, Isaiah 43:2:

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.

She asked if it would be helpful if she prayed for me. I nodded yes. After the prayer, she asked if there was anything else she could do for me, and when I shook my head, she told me to take as long as I needed. Then, she quietly got up and exited the room.

When I first entered medical school, I knew many of my most memorable experiences would be those moments I offered compassionate care to and deeply connected with my patients. Now, a few years into my medical training, those memories stay with me. But what also stays with me is my preceptor’s support that day in my moment of vulnerability. From the second she found out the news, she gave me her presence and her time as well as her empathy, grace, and encouragement.

It is often better to give than to receive. Yet receiving the gift of compassion from my preceptor that day reminded me, and will continue to remind me, of how to give to and care for those around me, whether they be my patients or my colleagues.

Copyright © 2019 by the Association of American Medical Colleges