How a doctor finds hope at a Jerusalem hospital

Pediatric oncologist Elisha Waldman explores a city's complexities as he reflects on his patients' spiritual needs.

What is the most important skill a doctor can have? For Elisha Waldman, it’s care rooted in observation. Drawing on Susan Sontag’s insight that when a person looks at a photograph of a suffering or dying person, “the interaction differs when the subject is making eye contact with the camera and when he isn’t,” he reflects on how he observes his patients. Is he a “dispassionate clinician, observing a patient solely to determine the best course of medical intervention? Or am I also engaging with the patient I’m looking at, and in the process trying to imagine what she is feeling and thinking?”

The value of observation in palliative care, Waldman notes, depends on several things: "noticing the details, whether it’s the icons on the windowsill, the glances between the worried parents, or in the pregnant silence before a question is asked. . . . But observing them, exploring them, those little hints and details are what allow us to develop the smallest opening into the most meaningful spaces."

What Waldman is describing here is the simple but profoundly spiritual act of listening and being aware of what others are trying to say.