I’ve just been to the chemist to collect last night’s (many) prescriptions. Whilst I was waiting, a young woman came in, very dishevelled, a little dazed, carrying a giant meds bag. The following piece describes the encounter and highlights what happened next.
‘My dad died’, the girl said to the assistant behind the pharmacy counter.
‘These are his medications’.
‘Are there sharps in there?’ the girl asked.
‘No. My dad died.’
‘What drugs are there?’
‘He had cancer. My dad died,’ the woman said.
Each answer began with ‘my dad died’. Not once did the assistant behind the counter acknowledge it, no matter how many times it was said. No matter how many times.
How many times would it need to have been said to acknowledge the girl’s distress?
It’s easy to see how voices are missed when no one listens when it’s so obvious someone is desperate to be heard. I’ve been that woman with a meds bag, and it’s horrific. Every encounter is remembered. No matter who it’s with.
A consultant in a distant office or returning morphine to a pharmacy. You forget nothing. No one.
You can’t teach empathy (I truly believe this), but when someone begins each sentence with ‘my dad died’, they are asking for someone to listen.
The thing is when you take a history in psychiatry, you are almost an archaeologist of words. You sift through a narrative to find the fragile pieces you need. You try to make sense of the story.
This though, THIS, was a barn door. This was someone desperate to be heard. Anyone, ANYONE, who is dealing with patients, in whatever capacity, needs to be a listener. Because you never know when those fragile pieces will surface. And it might be your only chance to collect them.
You really need to ask yourself why someone is delivering their answer to you in this way?
Why are they choosing these particular words?
Listen to the beat of the narrative and ask yourself if something is wrong. If you are in a job where you meet patients you might be the only person who hears those words. What you decide to do with them can change the course of someone’s life.
Can you teach someone to listen? I’m not sure, but if you’re on the front line, dealing with patients, it’s the most valuable skill you’ll ever possess.
Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist and a writer. She lives in Derbyshire and has a successful blog. This blog originated from a conversation on Twitter initiated by Joanna.