Small connections matter

My Dad died last week in New Brunswick.

I write that not as an invitation to sympathy (but, thank you), but to share a few thoughts from the patient’s family perspective – not on death during a pandemic, although that intensified and complicated things, so much as death in general.

Dad had a stroke nearly four years ago and his memory wasn’t what it once was. I’ll leave parsing out what was effects of the stroke versus medication versus dementia to course case studies. When he fell two weeks ago and broke his hip, the cause of his cognitive difficulties didn’t matter so much as the fact that he was an old man who was scared who was in hospital with visitor restrictions. That is: no visitors at all, unless the patient had palliative status (and Dad didn’t until his last day). Dad didn’t really understand the pandemic, and sometimes forgot what was really going on with his care – doing such things as trying to pull out his IV and catheter, for example. He was scared and in pain and confused.

One bright part of these terrible days was the day his nurse was from Miramichi, his hometown. He was so delighted to talk with her and talk about the places of his boyhood with someone who knew where he was talking about. Who shared the same connection to the River, to the place, to home.

This reminded me of decades ago and my last visit with my maternal grandmother in a Moncton, NB hospital a week before she died. My grandmother was Acadian but lived most of her life in a predominately English community. Her children spoke English. Her grandchildren were truly assimilated with only classroom-based, mediocre French. One of my indelible memories from that last visit was that her conversations with the nurses were always in French. And she seemed so happy to be able to do that. That her first language mattered; that she mattered.

I don’t want to suggest that for meaningful connections healthcare professionals need to share hometowns and language with all of their patients. This is both unrealistic and absurd. These connections highlight just that: connections. Those two nurses, decades apart, connected with scared, dying patients by honoring their shared humanity. My father wasn’t a broken hip; my grandmother wasn’t a failed kidney.

When my mother-in-law was in palliative care in a Toronto hospital in 2010, one of the volunteers did music therapy with the patients. When I arrived for a visit one of the last afternoons, there was a Rachmaninov CD on the table with a Post-It note: “When she wakes up, play track 4 for Sylvia”. He hadn’t had one in his kit and she had spoken about it with him; she was sleeping when he came back with it. (We still have the CD, as he wanted us to keep it).

There isn’t always time in busy clinics and wards to make substantial connections with each and every patient – especially for students who are wrestling with mounds and mounds of material to learn, remember, apply. I’d argue that small connections are just as meaningful. Small moments matter – a shared favourite song, listening to reminiscing. Dignity and connections matter.

None of those things I mentioned were “medical care” for Dad, Nanny, or Sylvie, but it was medicine in the compassion, the care, and the connections. And it’s these connections which give comfort to those of us left behind.


If you want to read a bit about my Dad, check out this link: https://nble.lib.unb.ca/browse/n/michael-o-nowlan

Posted on