In nursing school we learned about therapeutic touch.
I often hear people say, “Oh, I could never be a nurse! I can’t stand the sight of blood. Or needles. Or the smell of vomit. Or poo.”
Perhaps because I was the son of a nurse, I wasn’t thinking about any of those things when I declared my major. To me, nursing was science. It was medicine. It was fixing things that were broken using the most advanced technology in the world. It was about the marvel of the human body.
Shockingly, I was a bit late to realize that there would be…unpleasantries.
And, at some point, it also dawned on me that I would have to touch the patient. Not only to clean him, but to assess him.
I would need to touch her to listen to her heart and lungs, to take her blood pressure, to look into her mouth and ears.
It makes one nervous. You feel like you’re back in sixth grade and you’re forced, inexplicably, in Gym class of all places, to learn how to square dance–which will require touching girls. A very shocking idea for a boy with only brothers.
Therapeutic touch conveys the humanity of our care. A patient, surrounded by machines and tubes and wires–who is being invasively poked and prodded by cold things, sharp things, metal things, plastic things–needs human touch. Our profs reminded us that this is not creepy. This is not sexual. This is not inappropriate–and must never become so. It is human. “Hold their hands. Never forget how uncomfortable they are. How painfully dislocated they are from home. Hold their hands.”
Now, I worked my whole career in surgery. My patients were asleep. Except for when they weren’t. I never forgot those lectures on therapeutic touch. I took off my gloves and shook hands when I introduced my self in the pre-operative interview. I patted shoulders before we headed back to surgery. Most importantly, I held hands during the going to sleep process. People are frightened of anesthesia–sometimes more than the surgery. I was amazed at how often my patients (big strong men especially) would tightly squeeze my hand back when I held theirs. We were comrades.
For now we’re social distancing. We remain responsible. We remain cooperative. We remain sensitive and appropriate. Yet we must never forget how much we need to be touched. How the lonely are almost never touched. How the pariahs are believed to be untouchable. Christians serve a Master who touched lepers. Our churches built hospitals. We reject the notion that anyone is untouchable. And when we may, We hold hands.