“We could never have imagined that we had just met our life partner.”

Image credit: Erin Prado for Vivian Chen Photography

Stanford Presence 5: A Love Story

Former staff members Nadia Safaeinili & Aaron Tierney share the highlights of their Bay Area romance, from meet cute to storybook wedding

February 14, 2023 - By Aaron Tierney & Nadia Safaeinili

Many members of the Stanford Medicine community are familiar with the Presence Center and the Stanford Presence 5, a research study led by Drs. Donna Zulman and Abraham Verghese that yielded five basic principles to support communication and connection between clinicians and their patients. Stanford Presence 5 has inspired several additional efforts including Stanford Presence 5 for Racial Justice and Tele-Presence 5, but what few people know is that the research study also inspired our love story.

Our names are Aaron Tierney and Nadia Safaeinili—former employees of Stanford Medicine and two of the original members of the Stanford Presence 5 research team formed in 2017.

We met on August 14, 2017, in a windowless conference room on the second floor of the Medical School Office Building. Mondays are Stanford Presence 5 research team meeting days and that particular day, Nadia, as project manager, led the meeting and introduction of a new team member—Aaron. Our memories of this first meeting are quite different. 

Aaron immediately locked eyes on Nadia and remembers that she offered to give him a ride home at the end of the workday when his ride fell through. Nadia remembers feeling relieved that Aaron joined the team because he seemed super smart and she hoped he would be able to help support the rapidly increasing workload of this fledging study. 

We could never have imagined that we had just met our life partner.

The original Stanford Presence 5 team (Aaron and Nadia are third and fourth from the left), August 30, 2017

Appropriately, the first photo we have together is the first Stanford Presence 5 team photo. Over the next two years, we spent countless hours in each other’s company observing patient visits, participating in human-centered design sessions, poring over more than 20,000 articles for a systematic review, interacting with national experts in patient-clinician relationships, and celebrating team and personal milestones. At one celebratory dinner, we remember leaving Donna shocked at both the amount of food we could both consume in one sitting and the passion we shared for the flavors and techniques used in each dish we ate. Food continues to be a cornerstone of our relationship!

Our love story truly begins in May 2019, when most of the Stanford Presence 5 team attended the Society for General Internal Medicine conference in Washington, D.C. While there, we presented posters and presentations from our forthcoming magnum opus in JAMA.

Aaron and Nadia (top row) with the Stanford Presence 5 team, July 2019

In between plenaries and workshop sessions, Aaron asked Nadia if she’d join him on a walk, during which he asked her out on a date. Nadia declined, concerned about the repercussions that might ensue from dating a coworker, and—almost in response—the skies promptly opened up and they were caught in a torrential summer downpour.

Aaron was accepted to a PhD program in Health Policy at the University of California, Berkeley that began a few months later. Nadia, relieved that workplace impropriety was no longer an issue, asked Aaron out on a date.

One pandemic and almost two PhDs later (Nadia was accepted to the same doctoral program at Berkeley the following year), we reached out to our beloved PI, Donna, with an unusual request: would she be willing to officiate our wedding?

We held a small wedding ceremony and reception surrounded by the beauty of Tilden Park in Berkeley in August 2022. The event was literary-themed and many of our Stanford Presence 5 family were in attendance. Donna led the ceremony with the same heart and brilliance she brings to every space she enters and she shared the following during her remarks:

“When you two met, you happened to be doing research about humanism in medicine. Although the project was technically about how physicians can best communicate and foster connection with their patients, it turns out that you were fortuitously studying practices that are also foundational to a healthy, loving, and lasting relationship.

The research that you did yielded five basic principles for communication and connection (easy to remember, like the five fingers on a hand): prepare with intention, listen intently and completely, agree on what matters most, connect with the person’s story, and explore emotional cues. Everyone here will recognize that the two of you understand these principles intuitively, and that you practice them in your daily lives, especially with each other. As you continue on your adventures together, facing the incredible beauty and the challenges that life brings, I can think of no two individuals who are better prepared.

In essence, Nadia and Aaron, your relationship is the ultimate academic origin story and love story, a case study for the ages, and as all of your loving family and friends here can attest, one that would hold up favorably to rigorous peer review.”

The audience laughed, we kissed, and so began the next chapter of our love story.

Erin Prado for Vivian Chen Photography

Erin Prado for Vivian Chen Photography

Erin Prado for Vivian Chen Photography

Stanford Presence 5 team members and partners (From L-R: Marie Haverfield, Donna Zulman, Nadia Safaeinili, Aaron Tierney, Marcy Winget, Cati Brown-Johnson) and former Stanford employee Karina Soboleva and partner

Image credit to Erin Prado for Vivian Chen Photography

Image credit to Erin Prado for Vivian Chen Photography.