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Listening and Learning

By John J. Reilly, Jr., MD

(November 2016) At the 2016 matriculation ceremony this summer for new MD students at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Shanta Zimmer, MD, associate dean for diversity and inclusion, delivered a thoughtful keynote address to the class of 184 students.

“We all go into professions for many reasons: money, status, security,” Shanta quoted from an essay by New York Times columnist David Brooks. “But some people have experiences that turn a career into a calling. These experiences quiet the self. All that matters is living up the standard of excellence inherent to their craft.”

She urged the class of 2020 to find the “call within the calling” and reminded them to put people first. “Know your patients as people,” Shanta said. “The rewards will be great.”

Along with everything else we learn to become physicians, physician assistants, physical therapists and medical scientists, one of the most critical skills we need is the ability to listen. Listening to patients’ stories and learning about their values helps us help them. When patients are making difficult decisions about their health, when colleagues are struggling with career choices, when friends need help, listening is an essential first step.

Often we physicians are not very good at letting patients talk. Based on some studies, on average, we interrupt a patient somewhere between 12 to 18 seconds into the medical history. We need to be better than average. The most important organ we have is our ears. One of the richest joys of practicing medicine is interacting with people and hearing their stories.

This issue of CU Medicine Today features some examples of how important it is to know the person, not just the patient.

Sarah Cauley is a young woman with cerebral palsy with a lifelong dream of dancing competitively. Scientists on our faculty have been working with Sarah and others like her to get a better understanding of the transition to adulthood for people with cerebral palsy.

Jim Cohen is an accomplished chef and restaurateur who suffered a paralyzing stroke and has been battling to regain his mobility in order to walk his daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. Physicians on our faculty have offered him excellent care and friendship.

William Elder, Jr., was eight years old when he was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, facing a life-limiting diagnosis. After enrolling in a clinical trial led by one of our faculty members, William’s quality of life improved dramatically and he has recently completed medical school, inspired by the care he received from Frank Accurso, MD, professor of pediatrics, who retired this year from our faculty after 42 years of service.

In Shanta’s address at the matriculation ceremony, she told the students that there would be challenges ahead. There always are. She urged them to distinguish themselves by finding ways to address the concerns and keep moving on. For Shanta, inspiration comes from her patients.

“My answer was that when I think the setbacks I’m facing might be challenging or insurmountable, I do what we doctors do,” she said. “I lean into the greatest driving force we can imagine. I flee to the bedside of my patients and listen to the stories they tell me about their lives, their accomplishments, their hopes and their legacies.” They are all the inspiration we need.​

With warm regards,  


John J. Reilly, Jr., MD
Richard D. Krugman Endowed Chair
Dean, School of Medicine
Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs
University of Colorado