The value of listening

Before I met my wife, I wanted to learn foreign languages in order to, well, meet foreign women.

I learned Italian during a “Junior Year Abroad” in Italy. I remember a date with a girl named Margherita. My Roman friend, Massimo, coached me with phrases like: "mi ha colpito la tua bellezza" (I was struck by your beauty) and "vederti la prima volta e' stato un colpo di fulmine" (Seeing you was a bolt of lightning).

I spent our date trying out these over-the-top romance-novel phrases, pronouncing them well, but not really listening to anything Margherita said.

At evening's end, we happened to meet Massimo on his moped on Viale Aventino. I introduced him to Margherita, and he, ever the smooth talker, said in Italian, "Jon, did you know that the word margherita means 'daisy' in English?" Margherita smiled. And I, more eager to speak than to think or listen, said in halting Italian, "It's also the name of a pizza."

I never saw her again, but Margherita taught me that it's usually better to listen well than speak well.

In medical school, I was on a surgery rotation with a really smart student named Rich who always tested well. We were to examine a woman with abdominal pain in the Bronx's Jacobi Hospital, write our note and present her on rounds within the next 10 minutes. Since the largest non-English-speaking demographic at Jacobi at the time was Hispanic, and since our patient was brown-skinned and clearly did not speak English, Rich said in medical-school Spanish, "Donde le duele?" (“Where does it hurt?”), as he pressed on her belly.

She winced but did not understand.

I said, "Rich, I think she is from Pakistan."

Rich looked a bit flustered. He mashed harder on her abdomen, she winced and this time he said louder, "Donde le duele?" Again, I said, "Rich, she's from Pakistan."

She looked at us now with fear. Rich looked at his watch, started sweating and, pressing hard into her abdomen, yelled even louder, "Donde le duele? Donde le duele?!" At which point I said, "Dude! She's not deaf, and she doesn't speak Spanish. She speaks Urdu."

Rich, clearly, had never had a date with a girl named Margherita.

Not that long ago, I was in the doldrums at work. I never seemed to have enough time and always seemed to be rushing from one crisis to another, putting out fires and, in truth, not really enjoying the practice of medicine.

One of my favorite patients named Phil sat me down and let me have it: "Look, doc, sometimes it's not just about ordering the right tests, or making sure the consultant is good, or reading all the latest studies. Sometimes it's about sitting and just listening to the patient. And lately, you seem like you are so busy that you talk fast and want to finish up without listening. You had better change."

I felt bad, of course, but I knew instantly that he was right. I don't think there's ever going to be enough time, and I tend to always fall behind, but Phil made me really like being a doctor again, and I owe him a debt of gratitude.

Maybe I should take him out for lunch and we can order a pizza margherita.

 

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