The patient arrived and looked as unwell as she had sounded on paper. Advanced end-stage illness, worse for wear after many weeks in hospital. Poor sleep night after night. Recurrent bad news relayed, unclear if understanding had been checked on or not. The standard restaurant question, “how’s your meal going?” is not asked in most clinical settings. I was told they appeared wary and slightly suspicious of what we had to offer. They had just met our team, they did not know us, we did not know them. They were assessing us as much as we were assessing them. We were not there to be opponents or combatants. We needed to connect in order to work together on the same team. If it wasn’t for the patient, none of us would be in the same room as each other. We were strangers who needed to try to collaborate with each other.
First impressions count. I relaxed my control of my Kiwi accent and let my inner hometown boy speak. I slipped in as many indigenous words as I knew to make it clear that their culture and traditions were welcome here in our hospice. I mentioned that a Chinese dude would be leading the singing practice the following morning, songs written in their language. “Please join me, I need all the help I can get. I’m tone deaf, I don’t understand what musical keys are, but I am loud. I once had singing lessons, but my wife asked me to ask the teacher for a refund.” The sound of our shared laughter was the background music to our rapport building project.
“We’re going to take things one day a time. We’ll get to know you. You’ll get to know us. We’ll all work together to get our patient/family member more comfortable.”
Trust has to be earned, one interaction at a time. We may only get one chance to connect. Give it your best shot.