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Jon Wang

Jonathan X. Wang, '19, MS '19

What End-of-Life Care Taught Me About Medicine Beyond Medication

student with a hospice patient
A member of Stanford Undergraduate Hospice and Palliative Care volunteers with a patient from the local community.


I remember how Frank loved jazz. How he smiled whenever I mentioned his wife or his three daughters. The stain on the corner of his checkered shirt, the slight bulge in his belly, the tan khakis he always wore.

But I also remember how frail his aging hands were. How Alzheimer's took his ability to remember his favorite song. How his face would fall at the end of our weekly visits. I remember his last whisper to me that echoes in my head months after his death.

Frank, like my other hospice patients, taught me that medicine isn't only about life expectancies, surgeries, or prescriptions. It's about Nate, a teen with HIV whose main concern is whether he'll ever make friends at school; or Jacob, who wants to spend his remaining days with his three daughters, not at a clinic taking a barrage of medical tests.

I first started volunteering in hospice the summer before coming to Stanford, with some encouragement from my older sister and a book I read, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. The patients I met showed me the value of care beyond data and diagnosis, beyond literature and calculations. I have seen a patient's eyes light up over a conversation about their poetry collection, their wife, their three kids. I've also sat with patients as they came to a peaceful end or violently struggled to keep their autonomy. These experiences have taught me that empathy can be like a clinical skill—we strengthen it when we go beyond routine pleasantries, and we treat with it by listening with intent and bringing difficulties to light.

Frank's diagnosis of Alzheimer's meant that during our time together, he lost memories of who he was. It meant he was going to forget our visits. He was going to forget my name. I know many of these stories are sad, and some did not have happy endings. But these stories inform my resolve to make sure that in the future we find ways to change the ending for people like Frank.

Inspired by my experiences in hospice, I reached out to Dr. VJ Periyakoil, the director of Palliative Care Training at Stanford Hospital. Under her guidance, Anthony Milki, '18; Yong-hun Kim, '19; and I established an organization in 2016 that works closely with the elderly community to engage students in compassionate care and spread awareness of the challenges facing our growing elderly population: Stanford Undergraduate Hospice and Palliative Care (SUHPaC).

Through SUHPaC, I have seen how working with patients at the end of their lives fosters love and respect for others. I have witnessed the transformation of our members into caregivers as they discover that medicine is more than just a pill. Founding the organization is the thing I am proudest to have done at Stanford. Someday, I hope to shake the hands of a hospice patient, not as a young man unsure of his future, but as a confident, learned, and caring individual in a white coat, extending a hand to help.

Jon Wang, '19, MS '19, is a computational biology major and coterminal master's student in biomedical informatics. He is a member of the Public Service Honor Society, a year-long cohort of seniors that provides students the opportunity to reflect on their public service and develop their civic leadership identities. At Stanford, Jon has been involved in Stanford Emergency Medical Services, Golden Gate Science Olympiad, AI and Cancer Biology Research, and Stanford Health Innovation. He is from Roseville, Minnesota.
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