I rarely write personal posts but I just read about something at Kerry Dwyer’s blog site that reminded me of something that changed my life, something I wanted to share, the power of touch.
While in grad school at UCLA, I had a clinical rotation at a VA outpatient hospital, when a homeless man was brought in to the emergency room. He was filthy with a foul odor, as if he hadn’t changed his clothes in days nor took them off to go to the bathroom. I saw him come with the paramedics and the commotion that ensued with a lull before anyone started treatment, to gown and glove up, goggles over eyes, all body parts covered. The swarm of doctors and nurses began working on him as I made my way over to what looked like a great teaching experience I didn’t want to miss out on. When one of the doctors stepped back to wretch, I found my opening, right at this man’s head. His face was covered in dirt and dried blood, his hair was matted to his scalp, crusts of what looked like bacterial infection surround his nose, and his breath was loaded with ETOH (alcohol), but through all this his eyes caught my attention, powder blue, dull but an incredible color in contrast with every other dirty part of him. I looked at those eyes, into them, and saw a sadness that called me to him that said, there’s nothing left for me to live for. My ungloved hand moved up to his face and touched his cheek, to say I see you, I feel you. The doctor who had left returned with a lumbar puncture kit and told me to get out of the way. I walked outside and thought of this man, who once was someone’s baby, fought in Viet Nam, and who knows what else, and cried.
A week later, I returned to that same VA facility and was assigned to see out patients. Half way through my shift, I was paged to the front desk, where I found a nice looking thirty-something man, wearing khaki pants, a red and white stripped shirt, penny loafers, and a blue blazer. He looked like something out of Harvard and I thought he was probably a new Intern or Resident but there was something about him that looked familiar, his eyes.
“Do you remember me?” he asked. He didn’t wait for my answer, he saw I had. “Just came back to thank you. ” He then went on to tell me that my touching his cheek really got through to him, as drunk as he was he remembered that. He also remembered that I looked at him, not in disgust or revulsion but soul to soul, and in that brief encounter, he felt human again. He had lost his soul in the killing fields and was on a self destruct slow suicide mission when he arrived at the ER a week earlier but his plan, his wanting to quit it all, was interrupted, by a naive girl, who was stupid enough to not put on gloves, or cover herself from him. He remembered something I forgot, that when the doctor came back and told me to leave, it was because I wasn’t wearing that protective gear. That stuck with the patient. He felt I was there for him and not the procedure, I was the with him, and not the job or duty, he felt noticed and that someone cared. He told me he cleaned himself up to come back as a thank you to me for that. And with that, he very politely said, “I’ve taken enough of your time here. You have a good day.”
He left me speechless, standing there watching him leave, in awe, in what I can’t even find the words to express. I never saw him again, but I will never forget him.
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