My Missing Piece: Reaffirming My Love for Puzzles During the COVID-19 Pandemic

When I was studying for my DATs about ten years ago, I remember being frustrated with the PAT portion of the exam. Why would I ever need to know which asymmetrical and odd shape would fit which hole? How would this be relevant to the practice of dentistry? As I passed the time working on a 2000 piece jigsaw puzzle during a 12 hour night shift at my GPR, I had a moment of clarity.

dr. Khan

I am an imaginative person by nature. I have always found creative tasks such as coloring, embroidery or crochet not only enjoyable but also relaxing. However, my true passion lies in bringing order to chaos – my favorite chaos is jigsaw puzzles.

The first commercial jigsaw puzzle was created in 1762 by London-based mapmaker John Spilsbury, who mounted a map on a wooden base and then cut the borders of individual countries with a jigsaw. During their early years, the primary purpose of jigsaw puzzles was to help children learn geography. The invention of the “tredle jigsaw” tool in the early 1800s allowed for the creation of more intricate piece shapes and faster production.

During the Great Depression, the popularity of jigsaw puzzles grew exponentially and allowed families to spend time together solving problems while distracting themselves from the daily hardships. More recently, during the COVID-19 pandemic, jigsaw puzzles provided a quiet, inexpensive escape from the ever-changing world amid a global pandemic.

Oral health is multifactorial and only after a comprehensive medical, social and nutritional history can we get a complete picture of a patient’s oral health. Like a jigsaw puzzle, it’s only after you put the pieces together that you can see the whole picture; in the case of dentistry, you as a healthcare provider can now tailor treatment and oral health advice to the specific patient. In addition, jigsaw puzzles challenge our perception, color matching and pattern recognition and tuning – a dentist’s dream! By puzzling I can achieve creative meditation and mindfulness through the marriage of the left and right sides of our brains.

I reaffirmed my love for puzzles in March 2020 when “elective dental procedures” were canceled in upstate New York. Our clinic schedule switched to weekly emergency services. I was concerned not only about the impact of a global pandemic, but also the impact it would have on my teaching and clinical training during my pediatric dental residency. Organized dentistry took the opportunity and I was inundated with hours of online CE that allowed me to bolster my clinical understanding. Yet my hands remained restless. I wanted to create. But at the same time, I wanted to seek mindfulness. I found my nirvana through jigsaw puzzles. My hands were actively searching for the next piece while my mind was laser-focused on the final photo.

Puzzling, like many other dental procedures, creates a unique sense of accomplishment. A little moment of success that only happens through my efforts and achievements. The final image of puzzles has evolved from outdated landscapes to modern and vibrant photo capes with a wide variety of exciting and unique illustrations.

My favorite puzzle is the Clemens Habicht, 1000 Colors puzzle where each individual image has its own specific shade. As I completed this puzzle, I was transported back to my dental school days trying to rearrange the VITA Classic Shade Guide by shade or brightness. When I encountered a roadblock with the shades of green, I turned to an aesthetic dentistry tip by photographing the pieces in black and white to help distinguish them with no luck. Soon the puzzle was complete – almost too soon. It stayed on my kitchen table for a week after it was done and brought a smile to my face as I walked past it. Once that allure faded, I quickly disassembled and embarked on my new adventure: a 1000-piece puzzle of a world map made up of flowers has since been framed and hangs in my living room.

A year and a half later, we’re still in a pandemic and the uncertainty of things becoming a constant, as are puzzles like my favorite mindfulness hobby. In light of the uncertainty in our lives, working on a puzzle makes sense while we are nostalgic for a life unhampered by the burdens of technology. I always have a puzzle going in the corner of my apartment as a reminder that, no matter how small, every step forward takes you closer and closer to the end goal.

In addition, puzzling requires special attention and can be a way to center yourself in the disorder of colors, patterns and shapes. More than ever, mental health is the cornerstone of a successful dentist and I encourage everyone to find a hobby that is the missing part of their overall happiness and well-being.

dr. Sarah Khan is a guest blogger for New Dentist Now. She grew up in Long Island, New York and graduated from the Stony Brook School of Dental Medicine in 2016. While in dental school, she completed a master’s degree in public health at the same time. She completed her GPR in NY Presbyterian/Weill Cornell in 2017 and then spent two years in Philadelphia, PA. In 2021, she completed her residency in pediatric dentistry at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, NY, while serving as chief resident during her sophomore year. dr. Khan now works in private practice. She is passionate about health advocacy and is always looking to get involved in organized dentistry at the local, state and national levels. In her spare time she likes to travel with her husband, make puzzles of more than 2000 pieces and laugh.

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