I don’t think anything can ever fully prepare you for the first time you have a conversation with a patient about suicide. Especially not on your first afternoon of clinical rotations, as I did one week ago.
As this elderly man and his wife sit in front of me, I desperately reach for the words I had learned that I was supposed to say. Reflective reassurances. Empathetic responses. Summary statements.
“What I am hearing you say is that you feel like you have lost all control of your life.” I find myself stating.
And who can blame him? A long history of COPD with a recent stay in the hospital leaving him dependent on high levels of oxygen around the clock. He now literally lives on a 50 foot leash in his own home (enough distance for him to make it to the bathroom and the kitchen, he told me).
So how do I, a 23 year old student who’s worst medical problem was an overnight hospital stay for appendicitis, find common ground and space to empathize with this man?
I too know what it feels like to have lost control of your own life. In fact, I know what it feels like to lose control in the hands of a disease. Actually, now thinking about it, I can even point to an exact moment where I felt so completely out of control that I begged God to allow me to die so I didn’t have to live as a slave to my addiction anymore.
A professor of mine once told our class “If you connect, two lives change. If you don’t, all you are doing is spending time.”
I don’t know if I changed this man’s life in our encounter with my fumbling attempts of reassurance that first day in clinic. But I do know that it has changed mine, because it reminds me that common ground is so much closer than we may originally think.
While each of our experiences are different and suffering incomparable, the ability to find maybe one point where I can relate to someone allows us to meet in a circle of empathy and compassion. Looking for these commonalities in the people we encounter is the goal we must continue to pursue if we want to connect and therefore change lives.
While who I meet and the problems they face sometimes feel completely random and out of anyones control, reminding myself to continue searching for these moments of connection – that is something I can control.