Despite living in Michigan for over 30 years, my cold hands disclose my Southern California origin. As a physician, these cold hands have touched many lives. For my pregnant patients, they usually sigh with relief as I touch their bellies, the coolness of my hands offering them respite from the inferno growing inside them. They smile when I tell them I can feel their baby squirming and how it is laying inside them. And I smile inside that I have the privilege to touch them and their baby.
My gynecology patients, even though I warn them, jump in surprise at how cold my hands truly are. Those past menopause, in the midst of a hot flash, wish they could have my cold hands at night to help them combat their night sweats. Others joke with me that they are going to bring me hand warmers next time. For me, I welcome their warm bodies and still, this many years later, I am always a bit taken aback at how warm the touch is.
A few years ago, though, I met my match. A new patient, in her 60s, came to see me after not seeing a doctor in more than 20 years. She was sort of a plain woman, soft spoken, like someone you might easily pass over in a crowd. “I have just a little lump on my breast that I thought I should have checked,” she claimed. We talked in my office for a while about her health, her life, her family. It was obvious that everyone in her life came first and she had a real fear of doctors. I then had her go into an exam room to get undressed. When I came in, her gown was loose on her and I could see through the opening her breast – the “little lump” was big enough for me to see across the room. My heart sank. I came closer and had her lay down. I began to exam her breasts. The cold, hard, sinister lump rivaled the coldness of my hands. It had a grip on her breast, on her body, on her life and was not going to easily give up its host. I looked into my patient’s eyes as she lay there calmly — without words, we both knew it was a cancerous growth. After she dressed, we talked a while more about “what’s next.”
Over the next year, she saw many doctors — the surgeon, the oncologist, the radiation oncologist. Each doctor I knew and would send me letters updating me on my patient’s progress. Every few weeks, I would call my patient to check on her, knowing, despite her fears, she was walking through fire. I was impressed with her bravery and saw this shy, shaky voiced woman become the commander of her ship. She had finally embraced that it was her time, that it was her life she needed to care for, and all those she had cared for in the past were not going to care for her as well as she could for herself.
Each year, when she came to me for her annual exam, she would always start out with “thank you for saving my life.” It always surprised me, as I was not the one to save her life. I realized, though, I was the one she allowed into her heart, the one she allowed herself to trust, the one that finally said to her “you must take care of yourself.” Finally, life gave her an ultimatum, and if she didn’t make the shift to fully realize her importance, she would not survive. And each year, she came in with information to share about new studies she found, new alternative treatments, her other doctors’ opinions and wanted me to discuss it all through with her. She wanted to understand everything and make her own decisions regarding her care. Never again would she let 20 years pass ignoring her body. Amazingly, she beat the odds of her stage 4 cancer.
Now, about 10 years later, she has become such a vibrant woman, completely in charge of her body and her life. She is so chatty when she comes to see me; I have to plan a little extra time when I see her on my schedule. She still has a shaky voice, but certainly, she would not be easily passed over in a crowd. Her last visit was bittersweet, she has decided to move south with her husband and daughter, now tired of the cold Michigan winters and able to clearly express her wants and needs to her family. I will miss her and the amazing transformation I saw after she trusted my cold hands to guide her through taking charge of herself and eliminating the parasite that invaded her body so many years ago.
Andrea Eisenberg is a obstetrician-gynecologist who blogs at Secret Life of an OB/GYN.
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