05 October, 2011

It's Touching

Recently I gave my body to science. Well, that's not quite right. It would be better to say I gave my body to education. No, wait. I still have it - so let's just say I loaned my body to education. Yeah, that's it; that's what I did.

Two weeks ago I presented my body to students in three different lab sections in our graduate Occupational Therapy program. Specifically, they examined and worked with my left arm and hand. I did this last year as well so I'm a veteran and quite at ease with being interviewed, manipulated, stroked, poked, and assessed in all sorts of ways.

If you're not familiar with my "Neglected Left," you can read about it in any number of my posts, but these five pretty much tell the story.

          Minority Report
          Missing Extremities
          There Are More Hands Than Heads, Usually
          Snap Out Of It!

Some of these students are former students of mine, so I do what I can to encourage them to relax. First, I tell them that it's just a body, and it is, after all. Feel free to touch. I try to assure them they are not going to hurt me. Without sensation in that arm, I'm not going to feel whatever they're doing anyway.

Of course, that's also a curse because I won't know if they actually are hurting me (i.e., causing damage). I don't worry about that, however, because the instructor is quite protective and simply won't let it happen. Johnny on the spot, so to speak. It doesn't really matter since the students are generally nervous and, therefore, most unlikely to do anything really unusual.

The goal is to let them see (and do) an arm and hand that have no muscle tone rather than just read about it. As they take turns with me, I usually try to amplify my comments about touch. I may be the exception in this, but I don't think so: as a patient or client, I want to be touched. I am not in the least disquieted about such touch, and it is, in fact, a good thing.

It tells me I am worth touching. It tells me they are not afraid of me or of my condition. It tells me whether I will like them (by how I react to their touch). I even can tell whether I will ultimately trust a physician or therapist by the way that they touch, and that bond is instantaneous when it’s right.

A recent column in the New York Times commented on the benefits of touching the patient, benefits that cannot be measured quantitatively.

"The doctor-patient relationship is fundamentally different from, say, the accountant-client relationship. The laying on of hands sets medical practitioners apart from their counterparts in the business world. Despite the inroads of evidence-based medicine, M.R.I.s, angiograms, and PET scanners, there is clearly something special, perhaps even healing, about touch.

"There is a warmth of connection that supersedes anything intellectual, and that connection goes both ways in the doctor-patient relationship. ... Touch is inherently humanizing, and for a doctor-patient relationship to have meaning beyond that of a business interaction, there needs to be trust — on both ends. As has been proved in newborn nurseries and intuited by most doctors, nurses, and patients, one of the most basic ways to establish trust is to touch."

So, my future practitioners, learn to be comfortable with touching. It's an essential skill, and your hands are windows that allow me to see or sense what I might normally not. (See: There's Something About Hands).