The art of medicine and the power of human touch

Though I had a less than comfortable childhood, I did not know what I missed in nurturing until I played football at around age 10. The coach, a big burly man, with a voice as huge as his girth, put his hand on my shoulder as he explained something to the team.

I have never been able to explain the feeling that went through me that day, that moment, like a thunderbolt. It was so foreign, I was so overwhelmed and afraid of what I was experiencing I ran into the sparse woods near the field and began to cry, crouched behind a lone tree I wept, when no one looked for me I sobbed uncontrollably. This was the beginning of a connectedness to the world. It was as if a spirit had entered my body and now I was aware, aware of life.

From that point on, I became acutely aware of how other kids were treated by a loving parent. I became keenly aware to how their lunches were wrapped and bagged. I felt an appreciative envy when I saw a folded napkin, and homemade pastry, I could feel the love.  I was drawn to mothers attending to their children, especially when they held their hands or touched them in some way.

A classmate’s pants were always just the right length and I inquired about how this was so. He showed me the tailored hem of each leg where the facile hands and warm heart of his mother painstakingly made him look so kept.  When I saw a father with a sleeping daughter in his lap, I would smile and get comfort myself. Rather than feel disconsolate or jealous I felt connected, I too had an idea of what that felt like.

With no thoughts of medicine as a career I chanced upon a picture, I believe in Life Magazine, of the pediatrician, author and poet, William Carlos Williams. He stood over a very young child who appeared asleep. The infant had been kicked in the head by a horse, her wound sutured, the bleeding stopped. Dr. Williams’ hands were cupping her head much as you see St. Francis of Assisi, depicted in art, as he holds a dove.

His face weary and grim as he waited for her to wake and once again bound about with energy and life. I knew from experience his hands were the conduits of life itself, energy from his magic to her tissues and soul. This, not the sutures or hemostasis, was going to make her better; I knew then where my life was to be. Somehow by being a doctor I could supplant a mother and father and then administer that magic offered in touch. Being a doctor would keep me connected to that day, that moment on the field.

I immediately understood the art of medicine and the power of human touch. Occasionally, when listening to a patient’s frustrations about a previous encounter with another doctor or healthcare provider, they would mention, “and he never even touched me.” They reach out from the sick bed to make contact with us in a plea for help, as if they will not be taken seriously until they transfer their tacit need by touch, this request not confirmed until we touch back.

I am prone to touch a sick patient on the forehead much as a mother would to check a child’s fever. I rest it there for a few seconds at the hairline, just enough to let them know I’m connected; you are not alone, I will care for you. I will try to give a little spark of life to each patient, much as that first touch did to mine. They do not teach this in medical school, it is not born from altruism either.

It’s because I feel the coach’s hand when I touch a patient.

James Asante is a physician.

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