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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  • Valerie Saenz


  • carolyn thomas

    Dr. James, this is such a profoundly touching essay on the beauty of that simple touch to the forehead. I wonder if that football coach ever knew of the profound impact of just resting his hand on the shoulder of that 10-year old little James long ago.

    Your patients are very lucky.  Thank you for this.

  • Rhonda Murdock Lustig

    I loved this article.  I had underestimated the value of the human touch until older.

  • jackiefox

    This is a beautiful post and it’s even more beautiful that you turned an uncomfortable childhood into something so positive. I bet your patients love you. I would also like to attest to the power of a doctor’s touch. I went through four surgeries, three of them for breast cancer, with my general surgeon. Every time, he’d come sit on the bed and rub my arm or hold my hand in pre-op. The worst one to anticipate was the mastectomy, and he sat with me and put his arm around me. I wish I could convey how powerful that gesture was. I will always be grateful to him.

    Right before he retired, my family doctor told me he couldn’t tell me how many times a patient has told him they wish a doctor would just touch them. One of the reasons I selected a particular young doctor in his practice to replace him was that she still does physicals. I had no idea that this was becoming a lost art until I saw it in the NY Times, and they confirmed it in my community.

    I’m so glad you are fighting the tide and telling us why it matters. I hope a lot of doctors in training see this! Thank you so much for sharing it!

  • Steven Reznick

    Wonderful article. When I make rounds at my local hospitals and see that robotic devices are now used for taking vital signs by nursing aides rather than nurses relegated to administrative paper work I am reminded of the diagnostic and therapeutic power of holding a hand. That little professional touch told you if the skin was warm or cold and clammy, if the pulse was bouncing and healthy and regular or weak and thready. It was accompanied by a smile and a look into the patient’s eye. The contact and communication provided me with much diagnostic information and the patient with an opening for an avenue of communication and  hopefully some comfort.

  • James deMaine

    A dying patient on a ventilator in the ICU was surrounded by five loving but understandably anxious and distraught family members.  My colleague was about to go into the room so I asked her at the nurses’ station how she was going to deal with this situation.  She said, “Laying on of hands.”  I thought perhaps she was being flip or sarcastic, so I watched.  Indeed, she walked directly to the bedside, laid her hands on the patient’s forehead, and began talking to him, telling him (even though he appeared unconscious) who she was and that his family was there in the room.  She took her time, examined him, then asked the family to meet with her in the nearby family room.  Later I heard a family member say, “Boy, I was really blown away by that doctor.  She spoke to him and touched him in such a way that I know she cares.  And she wasn’t even distracted by so many of us being in the room.”

  • Steven Park

    Institutionalized babies that were touched more often developed faster. Humans, even as adults, need to be touched. As physician-scientists are relying more on tests for diagnosis and treatment, there’s less human interaction on a verbal as well as a physical level. Alternative practitioners have taken up the role of “laying on of the hands” and really listening to the patients.

    I’m reminded daily of this important healing phenomenon that many doctors ignore: When my 2 year old son falls or bumps his knee, reassuring words along with a gentle rub and a kiss to the boo-boo stops the crying almost immediately. Similarly, in surgery and in the office, I make it a point to make skin to skin contact with the patient at various points of the interaction. Whether or not it adds to boost immune function and wound healing (which is does), patients value the relationship that develops and your outcomes will improve.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you, Dr. Asante, for sharing your story.  How lucky your patients are.  I only have one doctor who touches me. ungloved.  It makes me feel he really cares.

  • Lisa Morales

    Dr. Asante - thank you for sharing your story…it was beautiful! These days Dr.’s tend to run in and run out during a visit. We truly need more Dr.’s like you around. I’m glad you were able to embrace that touch on the field and carry it with you forever.

  • Gloria

    What a beautiful story Dr. Asante.  Thank you for sharing. 

  • Anonymous

    Not everyone likes to be touched.  My spouse would be very uncomfortable with the type of touching you describe.

  • matt yarusso

    An amazing read, thanks for putting into words the powerful yet under appreciated aspect of the human connection through touch.

  • Road Within

    I was very inspired by your story and how the gift of healing and giving has truly impacted your world.  A gift from heaven.

  • Ed Ferrigan

    I wish all Doctors has this man’s reflective ability and depth of heart and soul. Our country would not be in the health care position it is in. Thank you for giving me hope.

  • Anonymous

    What a beautiful story Dr. Asante!
    I was blessed with a wonderful mother who hugged and kissed her four children many times a day. Laughing and tickling will always be remembered as treasured times.
    Being in the healthcare field as a nursing home administrator, I know the power of touch is not always welcomed, but more times than not, I know it can make the difference in residents.  The gentleness of holding another persons hand, a gentle hug and smile and a kind word make all the difference in the lives of the elderly who have lost everything in their lives and are alone.  They no longer have the gentleness they once shared with their spouse or children they long to hug.  Our nursing home staff are caring staff who know the power of touch, kindness and connecting with many generations.

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