I am a “toucher” and a “touchee.” True, neither of these are words yet but I am petitioning Oxford to change that. “Facebooking?” That gains “word status?” Seriously?
I have, over the dozen plus years since graduation, become much more comfortable in my “toucher” skin.
I used to cringe as I leaned toward a patient in some stage of undress. Now, some would say, I am an excessive “toucher.”
With every blood pressure check, I grasp the patient’s elbow and with unspoken authority force the back of their right hand to rest against my right hip as I face them so that their outstretched arm remains in perfect position as the cuff inflates. As I listen to rhythmic and not so rhythmic heartbeats, my finger tips often graze bare skin. The heel of my hand is not shy and has rested unflinchingly on many a well-endowed breast. Shoulders are gently squeezed as I peer into eyes, noses, throats. Grieving shoulders are given support like unseen steel beams behind flimsy dry-wall. College kids are greeted with loud high-fives and, much to the utter mortification of my kids, I have been known to share a fist bump or two.
Now and again our “toucher/touchee” relationship is flipped, awkward or just plain funny.
After a long Friday a few months ago, Chris came home and declared “A patient kissed me today.” Despite my bored, unfeigned, and completely unjealous look, he felt the need to explain. As a young mother consoled her crying baby boy, he leaned in to look in the baby’s ear. The good doctor placed his right hand firmly but gently against the boy’s cheek to steady the otoscope and prevent it from sliding too far into the tiny canal. The cooing mom chose that precise moment to plant a kiss on her distraught baby’s cheek….a kiss that inadvertently ended up on my husband’s hand. I didn’t have to say as much, but the fact that I hoped he enjoyed that moment as no woman in his own house would ever willingly kiss his hand was pretty obvious.
I have this nervous habit of giving a gentle slap on the back after listening to a patients lungs or a quick pat on the knee after checking a reflex. My “look-touch-examine-slap” pattern turned disastrous after a complete, and I mean COMPLETE physical on a male patient. Prostate healthy and rectum thoroughly inspected, I delivered a no-holds-barred- full-on-palm-down-red-mark-leaving slap on the gentleman’s bare ass. It was not my proudest moment. Thankfully he was kind and acted like that was the natural ending to every prostate exam.
Once in a while, the roles reverse, and I become the “touchee.” Boundaries were obliterated and a life time bond was made just over five years ago. I was leaning close to a long time patient to look at a spot on her cheek. My gravid belly, swollen after 36 weeks of baby-growing goodness, rested against her thigh, neither of us paying it any mind. Until my ever Miss Impatient kicked with all her might. Startled by the force I instinctively reached down to my belly, at the exact second my stunned patient did the same. As our fingers grazed, our eyes met and we knew our relationship had for good and for the good, changed.
Last week, reeling from my own pre-Christmas plummeting mood, I walked into a room to see a patient that had really been struggling with depression. Numerous medications later, we had made one last ditch effort using an atypical drug. I literally was holding my breath to see if the newest medicine had worked. Seeing the unformed question in my face, she wordlessly stood up and hugged me. I can’t recall the last time a veritable stranger’s hug felt so right, so appropriate and so comforting to me.
I spend my life comfortably and, at times, awkwardly touching patients. But, it is those countless touching patients that give meaning to my life.