Some clinicians are lucky enough to interact with patients outside of medical encounters. In such settings, recognition of additional facets of their personalities may become evident, which will strengthen the patient-clinician relationship.
It was close to Christmas, and my patient, Mr. C, wanted to give a friend a gift. He’d recently been homeless and now lived in a group home. He also lived with a learning disability and schizophrenia and was a longtime patient of the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT) team. His finances were limited, as are those of most ACT patients, all of whom suffer from severe mental illness (SMH).
A quintessentially human attribute is the ability to make art—to create a unique object that didn’t exist before, using one’s imagination and available materials. The ability to create art isn’t confined to trained artists, as the “outsider” art exhibits in Baltimore’s American Visionary Art Museum demonstrate so well.
Among other art-making materials, I have a supply of jewelry-making beads and stringing materials, and a few years ago started a pre-holiday lunch-hour ACT jewelry-making group. There wasn’t a template or pre-designed model to copy. I set out a variety of glass, shell, and wooden beads, and everyone could pick the colors, textures, and combinations that appealed to them.
I sat at the table with eight men and women, helped when someone needed help, and avoided “prescribing.” As they worked, we chatted about music, holiday plans, and who they were giving their gift to. Ms. W showed me how to tie a better knot. Mr. B sang snippets of old rhythm and blues songs in a resonant baritone. I saw Ms. S smile more than I ever had. Ms. M revealed a quick and infectious sense of humor.
Most made several pieces. Their designs, created on the spot, were original and striking, and they were proud of their beautiful creations. Mr. C made several bracelets and insisted on giving the one he was most pleased with to his therapist of many years. His pride in being able to give that gift, and to take his creations home for the other important people in his life, was clearly evident.
As we worked together, I saw facets of my fellow jewelry creators that I might never see during regular encounters. I saw their individual personalities and strengths in a way I never would have ordinarily. And I think they saw me differently too. Subsequent clinical encounters with these patients went more smoothly. It felt like the ice had been broken.
Illness can overshadow the personalities of patients in regular clinical encounters. However, we can always look for opportunities to learn something about each patient’s interests and strengths that helps us see more clearly our fellow human.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.