Pear Pressure: A Medical Student’s Introduction to Empathy

The Doctor Weighs In
9 min readDec 6, 2019

By: Caroline Green

A medical student learns about empathy from a busy pediatrician who advised her that learning from patients’ stories can be more important than giving medications.

I fill the hours leading up to a novel experience by creating ridiculous stories about the person or place I’m about to see for the first time. After the occasion passes, I then take a few minutes to reflect on how my expectations lived up to reality. I’m sure it’s some sort of psychological defense mechanism evolutionarily adapted because it allays the most disconcerting of all human emotions, fear of the unknown.

If I imagine myself spewing wine all over my friend’s family’s Thanksgiving turkey after starting to laugh while taking a sip of chardonnay, the reality always seems much calmer and the experience a little, well, duller…unless, of course, my wildest imagination turns out to match the reality. This became the case for my first clinical instructor.

The pediatric hematology unit

Day One with Dr. R in a pediatric hematology unit. I had plenty of preconceived, wild notions in my head about this mysterious doctor. He was my ambulatory care preceptor, the only clinician with whom I would directly interact in a hospital setting during my first year in medical school.

The “clinical skills” part of my mind was essentially a blank slate for Dr. R to fill. After learning of my assignment, I needed to contact Dr. R to arrange my ambulatory care schedule with him. Simple? Not so.

After a few enthusiastic emails, calls to a phone number that wasn’t connected to a voicemail system, calls to his receptionist, and desperate last-ditch strategies discussed with the other student assigned to the same rotation, I finally received a two-word email from Dr. R in response to my elaborate plans for getting the most out of my shadowing experience.

“That’s fine.”

My imagination went wild

Visions began to dance in my head of this new character about to walk into my life, this “Dr. R”. A Google search yielded few clues-a photograph of a bald, smiling, middle-aged Indian man and a few PubMed articles.

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