This is what a teacher once said to me:

You’ve seen farms with wooden fences around them, right? They have posts every few feet. Logs link the posts together. Farmers or ranchers rest their feet on the lower beams and lean on the upper beams. They look out over these fences at their crops, their livestock. You see that?

Imagine you’re out there and you see your patient leaning against the fence. If you’re respectful, he’ll invite you to stand next to him. Now you can both lean against that fence and share the view, see what’s on the other side. Farm land, mountains, valleys, whatever.

That’s exactly where you want to be. You want to stand next to your patient and listen to what he’s telling you. He’ll tell you what he sees and what he thinks about all of it. You’ll have the same perspective. You can talk about that thing out there and you’ll both be on the same side of the fence.

That’s how you can start understanding who he is and where he’s coming from.


Listen and Look.

That bipolar guy over there—Heren is his name, I think—he was just admitted,” she said hastily to him. “I have to go to clinic now. Go over there and talk to him. Get a history.”

“No problem,” the medical student replied.

Walking along the windowless corridor in thin hospital socks was a wiry man. The shadow on his chin marked well past five o’ clock and time had left its grey streaks in his hair. His hands were shoved into the pockets of his dark sweater. The cuffs of the flimsy hospital pants wavered above his ankles.

“Hello, Mr. Heren. My name is Christopher,” he said, “and I am a student doctor.” Christopher took one step back as Mr. Heren began to extend his arm.

“Student doctor, yeah?” Heren said, frowning. “Whaddya want?”

“I would like to interview you,” Christopher said, pointing at two chairs across the room. Lightweight and unbreakable, each armless chair was constructed from a single piece of plastic.

“Okay,” Heren said, his gaze following Christopher’s finger. “Whaddya want to know?”

“Can you tell me why you’re here?” Christopher said, slowly walking towards the chairs.

Heren’s feet did not move. “There’s nothing wrong with me, this is all a mistake, I was living north of here with my wife, well, she’s not my wife anymore, I think she was running around with another man, but she’d never admit to that, I thought we got along okay, except for the time that she wouldn’t go to church with me, her flesh and spirit were weak, she didn’t want to drink from the lamb—”

“Where are you from?” Christopher cut in, casually returning to his original spot. His arm then motioned towards the chairs again.

“Springfield, my mother taught Sunday school and my father gave tithes every week, we drank holy water with our meals, she only drank soda, too much popping, the angels don’t find music in the popping, the cherubs think it’s too noisy, it’s like tap dancing, have you ever seen—”

“Wait! How long have you been here?” Christopher asked, his voice getting louder.

“No, let me finish, it’s the movement of the drinking fountain, you can find the holiness everywhere you look, you only need to listen and look, listen and look, the hyperkinetic movements will trap you and tap you—”

“Sir!” Christopher exclaimed, waving his arms. “You’re not answering my questions. I’m trying to learn why you’re in the hospital so we can help you.”

Heren suddenly snarled.

“Faith and good works!” he shouted before walking away.

Christopher took a step after Heren’s retreating figure and called, “Wait, we’re not done!”

Heren whirled around.

“If you want to be a good doctor when you become a real doctor, you’re gonna have to learn how to listen!”

Wiping his mouth, Heren walked away towards the plastic chairs. Christopher, rooted to the floor, felt his cheeks flush.