Moving Us Closer To Osler
A Miller Coulson Academy of Clinical Excellence Initiative

Seeing the Unseen

"An Orchid," Georgia O'Keefe, 1941, Museum of Modern Art.


To start seeing the unseen, carving out five minutes to sit down and just listen to your patient can make a difference.

Connecting with Patients | November 13, 2018 | 2 min read

By Lauren Small, PhD

Is it possible to see the unseen?


In her memoir “Pilgrim on Tinker Creek,” Annie Dillard describes going for a walk and seeing a hundred blackbirds emerge from an Osage orange tree: “They simply materialized out of the tree. I saw a tree, then a whisk of color, then a tree again.” As she drew closer, another flock of birds took flight, then still one more. “How could so many hide in the tree without my seeing them?”


The painter Georgia O’Keeffe believed seeing takes time. “Nobody,” she said famously, “sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time.” She filled canvases with enormous flowers, painted close up, so that we are literally stunned into stopping to look at them.


I’m a writer who runs a program in narrative medicine at the hospital called AfterWards. On Monday mornings I volunteer in the pediatric oncology playroom. Some of the children who come in look so healthy, it’s hard to imagine they have cancer. Others have telltale signs of their illness: hair loss, a port that peeks out from under their shirt, surgical scars. Sometimes even looking at them can be hard.


One time a girl came in, sitting in a wheelchair. Cancer had left her with severe disfigurements, and I confess at first I was afraid to go near her—I didn’t know what to do or say. For a while I left her sitting alone. Then I sat down beside her and we just began to talk. It turned out she liked playing with trains. I brought her a bin of engines and tracks, and in no time at all she had expertly assembled them and began to play.


Who has time in a busy clinical day to see their patients up close, like O’Keeffe’s paintings?


What remains hidden, like the blackbirds inside Annie Dillard’s tree, if we don’t take the time to stop and see?


I don’t have an answer to these questions. I do know there’s always a person inside that illness, someone who risks being overlooked unless we draw near. Sometimes, by sitting down and opening our hearts, we can even achieve that magical moment, and see the unseen.


These three tips have helped me connect with patients I see in the playroom:

1.) Make time. Carving out time for a patient, even five or ten minutes, will help you feel more connected.

2.) Sit down. Sitting down with patients lets them know you’re there to give them your full attention.

3.) Listen. Focus your entire body on just listening so your patient feels heard.