Friday, September 7, 2012


We live in a culture where physical touch is highly charged.  Someone bumps us on the subway or the sidewalk and we - especially if we are a woman - go on full alert, shying or jumping away, clutching our bag closer and even preparing to run.  This is not a bad way to react.  Fight or flight is all too necessary in situations where people's ill intentions can put us in real danger.  There are certainly lesser degrees of inappropriate or unwelcome touch that may warrant discomfort or anxiety, if not full-fledged fear.  A stranger doesn't ask before rubbing your pregnant belly.  A new acquiantance ignores your outstretched hand and instead presses you into a long embrace.  We step away quickly, and try to reclaim our personal space.

In medicine, touch is an incredibly useful tool.  For diagnosis yes, but as nurses especially, for comfort and assurance as well.  Before this week, I had never really thought about how to touch someone.  I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that never shied away from physical expressions of love and affection.  I've been cuddled, hugged, kissed, wrestled with, and patted for longer than I can remember.  To this day, I will occasionally sidle up next to my mother, hover for a moment, and then ask shyly, "Can I have a hug?"  She never says no.  Even in the middle of cooking, she will set down her spatula, turn to me with a smile, and envelop me in the reassuring embrace that is the foundation of all that I am.

With friends too, I have been blessed with an easy intimacy.  My high school friends and I would pile into one bed together at sleepovers, wrap each other in hugs, and fall asleep on shoulders and laps during long bus rides to field hockey games.  In college, without men in our midst, I found my closest friends yet.  Friends who will be there for decades to come, holding my hand and wiping my tears, just as they did for the four years we lived on top of each other.  In the two relationships I have had, as well, I found (after some initial stumbling) connection through touch.  We figured it out, and I felt okay about it.

But I did not get to twenty-four unscathed.  Like many women, I have been bumped or groped on the subway or the sidewalk.  I have been sidled by and leered at, and reached for with bad intentions.

I have also been pushed, hard.  Held up against a wall of a dark room, by a man I did not know.  Face pressed to mine, muffling my yell for help.  Hands under my shirt, my heart thumping with terror, my legs twitching with the urge to run, trapped, touched in the most raw and violating and unwelcome of ways.

A touch like that can change a person.  For a long while, it changed me.  It's been years since I trusted a man to touch me without the bile rising in my throat and my fists clenching in fear.

As a nurse, it is my job to touch everyone.  Those who bring my easy sense of Before innocence, as well as those whose eyes widen in fear, because they, too, are part of the After club.  My touch is uncomplicated.  It carries no agenda, no complication, no desire for reciprocation.  My hands are warm, my nails short and clean.  I gently but firmly press the first three fingers of my right hand into the softness of your upturned wrist, training my eyes on my watch as I begin to count your pulse.  I palpate for the artery in the crook of your elbow, and make light conversation while taking your blood pressure.  Lastly, I rest my hand on your shoulder, while I listen closely to your lungs, asking you to take deep breaths.  And that's it.  I can read in your eyes if you want me to step away now.  That is absolutely your right.  If you want me to stay, though, I can do that too.  I can hold a hand.  I can wipe a brow.  I can be the uncomplicated, the unadorned, the unselfish touch.

After all, I know what it's like to want nothing more than that.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post. As someone heavily involved in the medical world due to life threatening issues that leave me hospitalized often, and covered in more scars from invasive medical procedures than I can count...thank you for understanding the touch issue. The frequent medical trauma has led to me struggling with even the simplest touch ESPECIALLY from doctors and nurses, yet very few stop to think about that. I don't even like it when the nurse's aid puts the thermometer in my mouth for me. I always reach for the thermometer and take it FROM them and put it in my own mouth. Every nurse's aid looks at me in confusion when I do that because they never stop to think that even THAT can feel invasive. Thank you for being a soon-to-be-nurse that understands this. My one piece of advice for dealing with people out there like me...sometimes when we really really need touch, like during a terrifying moment of our hospitalization or something, we don't even know how to ask for it anymore. The words do not exist anymore. We are so stuck in the terror of "get away get away get away" that runs our every day life in terms of touch, that in the rare times that it can actually be useful/helpful, we no longer know how to speak up and ask for it. Speak up for us and ask us if we would like you to hold our hand or rub our back until we are asleep, sedated/whatever. There are times I would have said yes to that from a nurse and needed it, but I would never ask for it for myself.


Cait said...

Ashley, I can't thank you enough for sharing this. With every post, I feel like I learn more from my readers. Rest assured your words will stay with me as I begin my clinicals next week.