“Be productive and do something meaningful. But there’s no formula.”
As I pondered my dean’s words, I couldn’t help but think: A formula would certainly make things easier.
I had approached her about taking a year off from medical school to mentor a group of at-risk youth. The boys were a range of ages from elementary school to high school, were in the foster care or juvenile justice system, and lived at a group home in Taiwan. I had volunteered there for several weeks over the past few years.
My dean added, “Do it because you love it, not because you want to get gold stars or because you think it’ll be impressive.” In the end, I decided to go. Living at the home with the boys, I involved myself in nearly all aspects of their lives. I tutored them in English and math; led baking, piano, guitar, and exercise classes; helped them with college applications; and taught them about financial planning.
But beyond the formal programming, there were the subtle, in-between moments that I still think fondly of, although they were often overlooked in the busyness of life at the home: Playing competitive sock basketball with 3 of the boys using a single orphaned sock and a cardboard box; one boy’s skyrocketing motivation to learn English when cookies or candies were on the line; and debating with the same boy every day about how much “3 bites” of vegetables actually was.
There was also the boy who left everything covered in flour when we made cookies; the boy who ran and hid for 2 hours to escape having to do his homework; and the boy I stayed with during his 5-day hospitalization—he laughed in glee when we had hospital wheelchair races but squeezed my hand in a death grip as he got stitches. There was the boy who thanked me for always supporting him and for helping him get accepted to his top-choice college; the one who quietly whispered “I love you,” before immediately running away after I gave him some chocolates; and the one who told me that I wasn’t just his friend but his brother. These moments continue to hold immeasurable value.
During my year in Taiwan, I was constantly reminded of the importance of being fully present. Staff members at the home often told the boys how big a deal it was that I took time off from school to spend the year with them. But the boys were uninterested in the degrees and accolades I possessed. They paid far closer attention to how I interacted with them. They observed how I listened to and responded to their comments, keenly aware of whether I noticed their individual needs or simply made blanket statements. With more than 20 boys at the home, I could not spend large chunks of time with them individually every day. However, I learned I could be fully invested in each interaction, even if it lasted only 5 minutes.
Now back in medical training, I have found that, to provide whole-person care and effectively meet my patients’ physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual needs, I must be fully present. Like at the home in Taiwan, there is always more work that needs to be done. Given the practical constraints, it’s also often impossible to spend as much time as I would like with each of my patients. However, with the time I do have, I know I can provide holistic care and be fully present—to be attentive to my patients’ every word, silence, facial expression, and motion; to acknowledge and affirm the significance of it all; and to respond accordingly so that they know they are not facing their illnesses and circumstances alone.