How Listening to Patients’ Stories Can Inspire Your Practice

A Q&A with Laura Hoeksema, MD, MPH

A former space camp attendee and aspiring astronaut, Laura Hoeksema, MD, MPH, shifted her interest in science from space to medicine. Today, she plays an integral role in making sure care continues through a patient’s last days of life once the decision is made to focus on comfort as the primary goal.

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As the Associate Medical Director and Associative Fellowship Director for Cleveland Clinic Hospice, and the volunteer medical director at Malachi House (a home for those diagnosed with a terminal illness), Dr. Hoeksema is constantly working to relieve suffering for patients and their families.

Consult QD talked more with Dr. Hoeksema about her career path and what inspires her.

Why did you choose to practice at Cleveland Clinic?
I was hired to help create the inpatient hospice service at main campus. When I interviewed, I met individuals who shared a commitment to always do what is best for the patient and a passion for excellence and learning. I knew I could effectively fulfill my calling here, would be challenged professionally and could positively impact the care of patients at the end of life.

How do you build meaningful relationships with patients?
I recognize the privilege of being invited into a patient’s life during a very difficult time. As our team cares for individuals and their families, we really listen to identify spoken and unspoken needs. We are present in their suffering and explore what makes each person unique. The best part of my job is listening to patient’s stories, finding out what gives their lives meaning, what brings them joy and what is important to them.

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Do you have any particularly memorable experiences?
I cared for a 73-year-old man with multiple myeloma. He and his wife had been married for 49 years and throughout their marriage, whenever they faced a challenging time, they would say to each other, “left foot, right foot.” It was a reminder to put one foot in front of the other and to keep going. In his last days of life, his wife was sitting by his bedside saying, “left foot, right foot.” It was a beautiful picture of their journey together that I was privileged to observe. I repeat these words to myself when I am being pulled in many directions and being asked to do more than I think I can handle.

Tell us about a time when things didn’t go as planned and what you learned from that experience?
I wasn’t accepted to medical school the first two years I applied. This gave me the opportunity to obtain a master’s degree in bioethics and work with refugees in Germany for a few years. These experiences broadened my understanding of the world and other people. I learned to enjoy the journey, even when you feel like you are taking an unwanted detour. I draw on the experiences and the lessons I learned as I care for patients each day.

How do you avoid burnout?
When I watch our dog Cooper — a miniature Goldendoodle — chase a ball, it is as if he is the happiest living thing on the planet. Being exposed to pure joy on a regular basis is refreshing. He reminds me to find joy in simple things. I have been blessed with an incredibly supportive partner who helps keep me balanced and identifies early warning signs of burnout in me so I can intervene.

We enjoy hiking and sharing new experiences together. I pay attention to what energizes me and what drains my energy, and I try to keep more energizing than draining experiences in my life. I have learned to be kind to myself. I will never be perfect. Each experience I have is an opportunity to learn, improve and see things from a different perspective. I have an awareness of how precious each moment of life is.

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