Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Listening for meaning


In my palliative care career, I’ve learned that aligning care with patient goals is one of the most important parts of clinical excellence. To do this, I listen to truly understand what the patient wants. 

In a recent episode of “The making of a clinician: a closler podcast,” I had the opportunity to describe my path to becoming a palliative care nurse practitioner. Every day I participate in profound acts of meaning-making, a process that’s guided my professional journey for years.  


A decade ago, I was a working musician, part-time bartender, and full-time dreamer. I began caring for my dying grandfatheror perhaps more so for my grandmother as she witnessed her lifelong companion fade before her eyes. At a rehab in Queens, New York, after multiple hospitalizations for pneumonia, Popi told me repeatedly, “BenI just want to go home.” I played the role of cheerleader, telling him he was strong enough to fight, to build strength, to live.  


He died a few nights later, alone. His death marked a turning point for me, unearthing a key insight—I had loved him deeply but hadn’t known how to listen.  


This ignited a quest to find meaning in the form of individual purpose or vocation. I hopped in my 2005 Honda Civic and drove across the country several times over by mileage, listening for signs and answers. Each day I tried to shed preconceived notions of who I was and who I ought to be, until what was left was some bare truth.  


But through my pursuit to find individual meaning came the realization that greater meaning is created with and for others. This reminded me of Popi’s need to be heard at the end of his life. I was propelled toward nursing, with its emphasis on compassion, empathy, and treating the whole person. I sought to craft a career at a sweet spot between meaning-making and enough job security to rent an apartment bigger than my Honda Civic.  


It’s no surprise I was drawn to palliative care, a field devoted to aligning care with patients’ goals and providing patient-specific peace and comfort. Through this lens, I see life and death unfold simultaneously and sometimes indistinguishably, with meaning much more often made than found.  


As my path continues to unfold, as a clinician, musician, husband, and dad, I am continually reminded to quietly take part in the creative, meaningful act of listening. 








This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.