The Human Touch
Readers Digest. June 1988
by Dr. David Smoot
5:30 p.m. Now I know how it feels at the other end of the knife. I am a surgeon who has just had emergency abdominal surgery. They say I’ll recover. But right now I am lying in a sterile hospital room-hot, shaking and in more pain than I’ve ever felt.
For the first time, I understand the look I’ve seen in my patients’ eyes-the apprehension, the measured fear-and the instinctive need that always have to reach out and put their hand over mine.
I’ve always had a tough time with strangers touching me, or with my touching them. Bodies on an operating table-that’s different. The person is asleep and I can focus on a bone or a blood vessel, engrossed in the surgical task instead of the human being. Touching people is part of my daily routine. I do it as I was taught: impersonally, professionally, the touch as brief and to the point as possible. Now I am the recipient of that kind of touching.
7:20 p.m. The staff is dealing with me deftly. Everyone is starched and white and cheerful-and efficient. My pitcher is filled with icy water, my blankets are smoothed and cornered, my pillows fluffed. Efficient caretaking is what we do well.
How many times have I stood over a patient’s bed, clean shaven, showered, in control; giving the orders, not taking them; looking down, not up.
But tonight, in this lemon-yellow room that reeks of disinfectant, I am not a doctor. I am simply a man. I have a wife and three children. I play tennis. My favorite season is autumn. I have never before known pain as a constant companion. My new goal in life is to shower by myself.
I am scared, and tired of being handled!
2:15 a.m. Memories of another darkened hospital room: I am the young resident, face to face with my first dying patient, a skeleton of a women, ashen, incoherent.
I feel again my fear, my frustration, my overwhelming desire to run out to the parking lot, jump in my car and never come back.
Most of all I remember her soft cries-nonstop, monotone, counterpointed by the click of the life-sustaining machines. I did all the right “doctor” things that night. They didn’t work.
I, too, want to cry out against the night.
6:22 a.m. I have been checked and poked incessantly through these last, dark hours. Now I am face to face with the morning shift: one old, Cabbage-Patch-doll of a nurse. She goes through her paces: opens the blinds, changes my sheets, checks my pulse. She heads out the door. Then, spontaneously, she turns around and goes to the sink, moistens a clean washcloth and quietly wipes my unshaven face. Her only words to ma are, “This must be hard for you.”
This usually detached, controlled doctor feels his eyes fill with tears. It has been a harsh night learning the lessons of suffering. Now someone I don’t even know has taken a moment to acknowledge me as human. She has paused to reflect on my feelings, to share my burden with precious, sparse words: “This must be hard for you.”
One old, Cabbage-Patch nurse broke the routine. Not to check a pulse or change a sheet, but to touch me in a real way. For a moment she became God’s hands.
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The Scripture runs through my mind as I resolve never again to touch just a body, but a human being.