When my patient asked me to get the blackberry seeds out of her false teeth, I was reminded that simple comfort measures can be crucial for patient well-being.
Ah, the joy of visiting Bessie! Her symptoms were controlled, her family doted on her, and she loved her home hospice team. Things were good.
During my first visit, Bessie told me exactly what she wanted during our time together. Our visits had a pleasant and predictable pattern. She got just what she wanted, and I got a break from complex conversations elsewhere.
Bessie: “Hi, Preacher!”
Me: “Hi, Miss North Carolina!”
I am not a “preacher,” but as Bessie’s chaplain, I treasured the title coming from a lifelong, front row Baptist. She didn’t mess around with word analysis. If you were there to bring spiritual comfort, you were automatically “preacher.”
Likewise, Bessie never won a Miss North Carolina pageant, but did get second place in the pie baking contest once at the North Carolina State Fair.
She always jumped right into stories from her childhood, or her mama’s childhood, or the adventures of her second cousin twice removed. Bessie’s face took on a beatific glow as one memory tumbled into another. Then she would take a deep breath and say, “Ok, preacher, it’s time for some Bible talk.”
Bessie would nestle back into her pillows while I read familiar verses, followed by a point of application. A brief prayer completed the official agenda. My parting question was always, “Can I do anything for you before I leave?”
“No, Preacher, but thanks for asking. My daughter will be home from work real soon.”
We knew our roles, agreed on the script, and gave mutual comfort to each other.
Until that day. No cheery greeting. No stories. No peaceful expression. Just a glare and a grumble from Bessie. Face pouting. Arms crossed. Bessie wouldn’t say a word.
After multiple gentle attempts to get her to talk, I begged, “Bessie, please tell me what’s wrong. How can I help you if I don’t know?”
She grabbed my hands, pulled them together palms up, and slapped her food-laden dentures right in them. “Well, Preacher, if you just gotta know, them blackberry seeds from the jam sandwich I ate right before you came are giving me fits. It don’t seem right to ask, but would you clean my dentures?”
We didn’t have a course on gooey denture cleaning in seminary, or during practice rounds during my clinical residency. This gag-worthy task was nowhere in my job description. But it was the only thing that brought Bessie comfort that day.
It’s easy for us to be blinded by training, titles, and/or expectations. If we truly want to bring comfort, we may have to look beyond the obvious, keep asking questions, and be willing to get uncomfortable ourselves. Bessie is counting on us.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.