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Puzzles ease waiting time for oncology patients, families

by Jane Shaskan - April 10, 2006

Puzzle mania has hit Dempsey Hospital’s Division of Radiation Oncology.

And the puzzles, provided as a way for patients and their family caregivers to pass the time after the waiting room was moved to temporary quarters during renovations, are proving therapeutic.

“Caregivers love the idea,” says Debra Litke, an administrative assistant in radiation oncology.

“Sometimes they want to stay longer so they can add a piece or two before they leave.”

When the radiation oncology department started renovations, the waiting room was one of the first areas to go, and patients and their families were re-directed to the former conference room.

“The area was fine for staff,” says Litke, “but not what we’d normally have for our patients and their caregivers. There was no TV and nothing for them to do but sit and wait.”

That prompted the staff to start thinking about what they could do to help patients and their families pass the time.

“We came up with the idea of jigsaw puzzles. I can’t say who thought of it first, the idea just popped up at one of our meetings,” says Litke, who brought in the first puzzle March 6. It was completed by the end of the week, and puzzle workers were invited to sign or initial it.

Litke has taken on the job of framing the puzzles, with assistance from the wife of one of the patients.

The first of seven completed puzzles, a 750-piece cider stand, is now framed and on display outside the department’s temporary waiting room.

“We’re on puzzle number eight, and it’s barely a month since we brought in the first one,” says Litke. “I had to make more room.”

Dr. Robert J. Dowsett, chief of the Division of Radiation Oncology, says the puzzles give people waiting for their loved ones in treatment the opportunity to interact.

“The puzzles cut across the lines of gender, age, and status,” he says. “They’re real ice breakers.”

Shirley Plez, right, of Willimantic, and Annie E. Frett, of Windsor assemble a puzzle in a waiting room at the UConn Health Center.
Shirley Plez, right, of Willimantic, and Annie E. Frett, of Windsor assemble a puzzle in a waiting room at the UConn Health Center.
Photo by Peter Morenus

Mary Sue Miller, whose husband is a cancer patient, had never worked on a jigsaw before. She says doing the puzzles helps pass time.

“People talk to each other and there’s excitement in finishing these puzzles,” she says.

“A couple have been pretty challenging. The time goes by more quickly now.”

Dr. Carolyn Runowicz, director of the Carole and Ray Neag Comprehensive Cancer Center, says she has observed people in the radiation oncology waiting room absorbed in the puzzles.

“I think we are onto something – puzzle therapy,” Runowicz says. She plans to introduce jigsaws in the cancer center, too.

Dr. Steven Strongwater, director of clinical operations, describes the idea as “a stroke of genius.

“In helping the patients and their families, the radiation oncology staff have demonstrated ingenuity, compassion, and outstanding work,” he wrote in a campus-wide e-mail message.

The new waiting room is scheduled for completion by the end of April. Richard Allen, project manager for campus planning, design and construction, says the puzzles are being taken into account in the design.

“Design of this renovation project has taken on a life of its own,” he says.

“We started the schematic design phase in 2004 long before puzzles made it into the clinic. No one anticipated the puzzles would be so wildly received. Now, we’re getting our project architect involved, along with departmental staff, so that one way or another, puzzles will be included in the new waiting room design.”

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