While working in a palliative care clinic, I developed a connection with one of my patients through an unexpected medium: word search puzzles. She was doing one the first time I entered her exam room, so I introduced myself and asked if it was a difficult one.
“Why would anyone waste their time on the easy ones?” she replied. There I stood in my white lab coat and admitted that the easy puzzles are the only ones I can do. I had finished all the easy ones ages before and thought someday I would be patient enough to complete the rest.
I transitioned into discussing her palliative care plan and we ended our visit by agreeing I would trade all my difficult puzzles for all her easy ones next time she came into the clinic. Six weeks later she returned. I brought in about 20 word search puzzles that I had pulled from my activity books.
The patient appreciated the gesture and although she forgot her end of our bargain, about four months later, I received a page from the clinic stating the patient had returned and was signing into hospice with a package for me.
She brought me a grocery bag filled with easy-to-solve word search puzzles. I called her to thank her, and she immediately opened up about her decision to transition to hospice care. I never heard from her again, but each time I do a word search puzzle I think of her and how this medium, this mutual hobby, provided the foundation for developing our therapeutic relationship.
As caregivers we tend to focus on the task on hand. When patients present to the unit or patient care area, we are quick to welcome them but then immediately move onto what we as healthcare providers need to do. Without taking a pause at the initial introduction, we may lose the opportunity to build our therapeutic relationship.
After my quick assessment of a patient’s physical status, I always take time to find one thing we may have in common or something meaningful to them. I lay the foundation for this connection before moving onto discussing the disease process.
Sometimes all this requires is a quick glimpse at a patient or their belongings. Some details to look out for are:
- An activity they're performing, such as a word search or reading a book
- Any refreshments or snacks they brought
- Any identifying apparel, such as a sports jersey
- Any mementos or pictures they brought from home
I have found that patients appreciate talking about something meaningful prior to the more clinical conversation. Engaging with them on that level allows me to get to know them as a person. Plus, I don’t let the patient’s medical diagnosis define them.
As I write this reflection, more than six years have passed since my patient gave me her stack of word search puzzles. I still have many of them, and they have provided comfort after many difficult days at work. The simple activity of word search puzzles helps me clear my mind and reflect on memorable moments like these throughout my career. I smile because I often have to work through the difficult puzzles she did on the backside of my easy ones.