As reported by The Hartford Courant, March 29 2006.

Patients' Loved Ones Pick Up the Pieces (That's Good)

By Susan Campbell

Last Wednesday was a good day.

While Richard Miller underwent radiation treatment at the University of Connecticut Health Center, Mary Sue Miller, his wife of 43 years, successfully placed 13 pieces in a puzzle spread out in the radiation oncology department's waiting room.

It's the little things, right? You or someone you love finds a lump, and things start happening fast, and no matter how nice the medical staff might be - and Mary Sue and Richard can't say enough about the people in Farmington - there's that big unknown before you.

If the people in Farmington are nice, they are also apologetic about their temporary digs on the cavernous medical center's ground floor. While a new office is being built, radiation oncology is down a long hall marked by blue-tape arrows, with a smallish waiting room that's perfunctory, at best. There's the prerequisite coffee maker, but no television, no radio. Because the room seemed so stark, at a recent staff meeting someone suggested bringing in a puzzle for patients and caregivers. Richard Miller's sessions aren't usually long - 15 minutes, a half-hour - but for some caregivers and loved ones, the wait is excruciating.

And then something funny happened.

The first two puzzle boxes set on the waiting room's wide table quickly became an obsession. Caregivers lingered over the pieces, even after radiation sessions were done, if their loved ones were up to it. Recently, office manager Debra Litke came in to use the room's copier and saw a wife who had just settled into a puzzle. When her husband came back from his treatment, "she gave him this look and said, `Oh. Are you done already?'" Litke said, laughing.

Young women sit and work the puzzles with their fathers. They give high-fives when they snap pieces into place. Completing the puzzles has become something of a race, and newcomers are informed of the puzzle of the day's tough spots - that area around the pond, or the sepia-toned Victorian picture within the puzzle.

In her best parochial-school handwriting, Litke is keeping track on the room's chalkboard - when the puzzles are started and when they're finished. Usually, each takes a week; they're on No. 5 now. On Monday, Rob Auletta stood in the waiting room receiving congratulations for finishing his radiation. Although he never tried a puzzle - "These people take this very seriously," he said - when he heard the waiting room's supply would soon be exhausted, he offered to bring more. "I can get you puzzles from the VA," he said. Litke intends to frame them all. They're too pretty to bust up, she said.

When the second puzzle, an Americana street scene, was completed, Mary Sue Miller and others who worked it signed their names with a flourish. The latest puzzle - 550 pieces - is a picture of cats in an artist's studio. Mary Sue will see it five times this week - the five times her husband comes for treatment for the lump in his neck.

Meanwhile, people who otherwise might not talk to one another have found themselves exchanging important survival information over the pieces - like the name of the best throat lozenges, and what to expect during treatments.

On Monday, Richard Miller (he's a crossword-puzzle man) came for his treatment, leaning on a cane. He's had a hip replacement on top of his cancer treatment. He says the doctors are optimistic. He's already had chemo, and so far he still has his appetite.

The department plans to move into its new facilities by the end of April, about the time Miller's radiation is completed. The new waiting room will be state-of-the-art - with, of course, one modification. The staff has let the builders know: There must be room for puzzles.