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James Cook: Listen to the Heart and Soul

When I was a small boy, I remember my mother taking me to see the pediatrician. At the time, I remember going into a small room with a funny looking table.  I remember the nurse asking me to sit up on the table and lean back. She told my mother and me that the doctor would be in shortly.

Being an anxious and curious child, I would play with the sheet or paper cover on the exam table. It wasn’t long before the doctor came in wearing his white coat and carrying a clipboard with a funny looking thing around his neck.  He first took a popsicle stick out of a glass jar and asked me to open my mouth so he could press the popsicle stick on my tongue to better see in my mouth. It made me gag!! Yuk!  Next, he asked my mother a bunch of questions.  Afterwards, he reached up and pulled two long tubes with curved ends from behind his neck and stuck a tube in each ear.   Boy, did he look weird.   The two long tubes came together and there was a round thing on the end.   As curious children do, I asked him a bunch of questions. “What is that?”  He said, “It’s a stethoscope.”  “What are you going to do with that round thing,” I asked.  He answered, “I want to listen to your heart and lungs.” He took the round part of the stethoscope and rubbed it on his hand.  I would learn later that he was warming the cold metal.  He leaned in to touch it to my chest and moved it to a few more places, telling me to take a deep breath and to blow it out a few times.  When he finished, I asked, “Can I listen to it?” Then he put the two ends in my ears and pressed the round piece onto my chest. For the first time I heard my own heartbeat!  Wow!

As a young boy, I could not know that as an adult I would see many stethoscopes in my life. Each and every day, I see doctors, nurses, and respiratory care therapists carrying a stethoscope. The stethoscope was invented in France in 1816 by Rene Laennec. The device was similar to the common ear trumpet, a historical form of the ear trumpet. It wasn’t until 1852 that the design changed to resemble more closely the design we know today. The instrument is used to “listen” to the sounds of organs, blood flow, heartbeats, our lungs and even bowel sounds. Every time I see a stethoscope, I am reminded that my team members are listening to the patient’s heart. As a chaplain I don’t carry a stethoscope, but I, too, listen to the patient’s heart.  Our physicians and team members listen to more than just the sounds of the body.   It is important that we listen and “hear” the whole person. We need to listen to the stories that our patients tell us. A full examination requires that we listen carefully.  We need to lean in, make eye contact and exhibit our genuine interest much like the doctor does when listening to the patient’s heart with the stethoscope. We should focus our eyes on the person in front of us and listen for the heart of their story. Listening to the whole person helps us to trust each other, to feel validated, and respected.

If we listen carefully to someone’s story, we can see that shared stories often “connect” us to each other.  In those moments, our stories meet. We become a part of each other’s life story.  The stethoscope can tell the doctor if something is wrong or right with the physical body, i.e., a heart murmur, congestion in the lungs, irregular heartbeat or an interruption in blood flow. The same can be said by listening to someone’s story. We can hear pain, joy, and the strength of the heart and soul.

Listening does require us to be intentional. Our intention of personal attention conveys that we care, and that we matter to each other.  Listening helps us to understand each other better in world that has become more superficial. Being personally present with someone matters, especially when it comes to our spiritual, emotional, physical, and psychological health. So, next time you see a stethoscope, remind yourself that listening to the whole person is vital to our overall health and sense of well-being.

James A. Cook, M.Div. BCC, is Chaplain at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.


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