Happiness in this World

Reflections of a Buddhist physician

How Touching Saves Lives

The magical power of touch

Photo: Josep Ma. Rosell
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When I was a fourth-year medical student, I once did a month-long rotation in the ER. One night a woman came in who we decided needed some lab work. When I let her know we needed to draw her blood, she began to tremble visibly. "I'm scared of needles," she whispered to me.

She squeezed her eyes shut as the phlebotomist set up next to her gurney to draw her blood. "It'll be over before you know it," I tried to encourage her. She didn't even acknowledge I'd spoken.

The phlebotomist glanced at me once, concerned probably more that the patient was going to jump or prove to be a hard stick, and then said to her, "You're going to feel a little poke."

The patient tensed, tears appearing at the corners of her closed eyes. Not knowing what else to do, I reached out and took her hand, feeling awkward and foolish as I did it. She clamped down on my fingers so hard she actually hurt them until I shifted my grip to better allow for the force of her squeezing. When the needle went in, she clenched my hand even harder. I felt strangely and warmly connected to her, urgently wishing the phlebotomist would finish as quickly as possible.

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When it was over, the patient continued to lie there with her eyes shut, my hand still in hers. I watched as she forced her breathing to slow and then opened her eyes. She dabbed at her tears with her free hand and then looked directly at me. "Thank you," she said in a relieved voice. Then she gave my hand a final squeeze—this one mercifully gentle—and let me go. My hand started throbbing a little, but I hardly noticed.

WHAT TO SAY WHEN WE DON'T KNOW WHAT TO SAY

Most of us have had a friend or a loved one tell us something that happened to them that was so awful we didn't know how to respond. Perhaps they told us about a new diagnosis of cancer. Or about a spouse asking for a divorce. Or about the death of a mother or a father. Or a child. When we hear some stories, we recoil at the immensity of the storyteller's suffering, often finding ourselves grasping at platitudes that feel entirely inadequate.

But people who feel as if they're drowning in pain as the result of a devastating trauma tend not to want to hear platitudes and almost never want to be convinced things aren't as bad as they seem, even when they're not. Words of comfort, even if spoken awkwardly, are usually appreciated when the intent to comfort is genuine and sometimes help immensely. Sharing a story of something similar that happened to ourselves, showing someone we understand their pain in a way others can't who haven't experienced what they're experiencing, is often remarkably soothing as well. But when someone feels utterly defeated or terrified by their circumstances, few things, in my experience, equal the power of the simple act of touching to provide comfort.

THE POWER OF PHYSICAL CONTACT

Perhaps because, ultimately, we must all face the trials life has in store for us by ourselves—experience pain, fear, doubt, and loss in the confines of our own minds and bodies (that is, no one can do our suffering for us)—we long when obstacles appear for evidence that we're not alone, that others care about how we feel and what happens to us. There just seems to be something inherently comforting about the physical presence of others when we're in pain or afraid. And nothing starts that comfort flowing like a touch. Words may come out wrong or ring hollow on someone's ears, but a touch intended to comfort (on a hand, or a shoulder, or with an embrace) almost never fails to make them feel better. It requires just a little bit of courage on the part of the one who touches—courage to invade another person's personal space, to risk the scorn of the one being touched, and to volunteer one's presence and one's willingness to stand by another person in their moment of need. But I consider us lucky that we all seem to be built in such a way that something as simple and easy to provide as a kind and loving touch can bolster our spirits so much.

I try to remember the lesson that ER patient taught me as often as I can. It helps me not to feel inadequate when I'm unable to find words of comfort in the face of someone else's pain, and reminds me that what words of comfort I can find aren't nearly as important as the message my attempts at making them communicates: I care. When I—who pride myself on always being able to find not just the right words but magic words, words that illuminate, enlighten, and relieve—can find nothing appropriate to say, I remind myself that true brilliance comes from the willingness to share the burdens of others as my own, and that the simple act of touching is one of the easiest yet most powerful ways to do it.

 

If you enjoyed this post, please feel free to explore Dr. Lickerman's home page, Happiness in this World.

 

Alex Lickerman, M.D., is a general internist and former Director of Primary Care at the University of Chicago and has been a practicing Buddhist since 1989.

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