This Philly lab wants doctors to try a new medicine: listening

Listen 2:03
Stephanie Kindt (left) and Aaron Levy are the curators of Listening Lab, a year-long traveling exhibit that tells the stories of doctors and patients and explores the ways in which listening can improve care. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Stephanie Kindt (left) and Aaron Levy are the curators of Listening Lab, a year-long traveling exhibit that tells the stories of doctors and patients and explores the ways in which listening can improve care. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“I had a terrible experience with one nurse sitting with her back to me…”

Teya Sepinuck’s story of getting an endoscopic procedure in a hospital starts with an interview by a nurse who asked her if she was depressed or had experienced any abuse.

Sepinuck found the tone of the question and the manner of the nurse to be callous.

“I could feel my stomach just curdling, and I said ‘No, but I just want to say to you, if I was, I wouldn’t tell you, because I don’t feel like you care,’” she said.

Sepinuck’s story is part of the Listening Lab, a portable audio exhibition currently touring through the Penn Medicine hospital system. A few portable panels are set up in the lobby of the hospital, arranged to create their own semi-enclosed space. Earpieces play back personal stories from doctors, nurses, and patients describing the doctor-patient relationships and the power of listening.

The story of the callous nurse has a twist. Some time after Sepinuck’s procedure, she returned to the hospital for another one and found the nurse that time to be much more compassionate. She asked questions about abuse and depression in a gentle way, suggesting a level of empathy.

Sepinuck thanked the nurse, explaining her previous bad experience.

“She got this strange look on her face and she said, ‘That nurse was me,” said Sepinuck in her recorded story. “’I was multitasking and you called me on it, and you were right.’”

The Listening Lab is the brainchild of Aaron Levy, a University of Pennsylvania English literature and art lecturer.

He is also the director of the Slought Foundation, a nonprofit that curates exhibitions and public exchanges on cultural and socio-political topics. Levy says the Listening Lab is on par with Slought’s more radical and avant-garde work.

“What’s common across the arts, humanities and medicine is the value of listening, and this desire to think about how we can be compassionate members of society and compassionately care for each other,” said Levy. “There’s a lot that links the arts and humanities to medicine. This project was an effort to get at that intersection.”

Another story in the Listening Lab comes from Dr. Jeffrey Millstein, who remembered interviewing a new patient to get basic medical background. As Millstein asked questions and entered data into a computer, he noticed the patient was hesitant, and holding a large envelope very tightly.

Millstein decided to go off-script and ask “What’s in the envelope?”

Inside were papers memorializing the man’s son, who had died at age 32 from cancer. Millstein realized the man needed his son’s death to be acknowledged.

“He was looking for a chance to tell his son’s story before he told his own,” said Millstein.

So far there have been 14 stories uploaded to the Listening Lab pop-up exhibition space and website with more to come. The project is designed to solicit more stories from hospital staff and patients as it tours through 11 hospitals in the Penn Medicine system for the next year.

The project was designed in partnership with Penn Medicine.

“It aligns perfectly with the Penn Medicine standard of compassion,” said Stephanie Kindt, senior consultant for Penn Medicine Experience, which last year established a set of standards across the hospital system: “Be Compassionate, Be Present, Be Empowered, Be Collaborative, and Be Accountable.”

“One of the more important elements of compassion is being there and listening to someone, really being in that moment and engaging with them,” said Kindt.

The Listening Lab is currently at the Good Shepherd Penn Partners at Penn Medicine Rittenhouse Square. It travels to Penn Presbyterian in Powelton Village next and will make its way through the Penn Medicine system for the next year.

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