The Power of A Touch of Humanity

Illustration by April Brust

She was laying in the stretcher, closing her eyes, breathing in and out, in and out. A team of people moved her onto the surgical table. Heated blankets were draped over her, keeping her warm from the cool climate of the OR. The anesthesiologist placed an oxygen mask over her face and comforted her with words of “relax,” “it’s ok,” and “inhale, exhale.” Every so often she’d open her eyes, take a peek at the ceiling, shifting her gaze. All around, the nurse was typing away at the computer, the scrub tech armed himself with the necessary equipment, and I was trying not to be in anyone’s way by standing in the corner, taking it all in.

It was my first week of surgery. I’ll be honest: before the start of the rotation, I was terrified. 4th year students told me tales of terror, stories of getting yelled at in the OR for breaking scrub or not knowing the answer to a question. Despite my fears, I calmed myself with a promise to go in with a willing heart, and to learn as much as possible.

Soon, the door swings open and in comes the surgeon, the sound of her clogs echoing with each step. She checks in with each team member, and the process begins. The surgeon takes the patient by the hand, grasping the patient’s hand in hers. I could tell the patient looked nervous, but the surgeon stood right at her side, never letting go. The patient’s name is read out loud, matching the number on the wristband to the number on the board. Everyone nods in ascent. Medications are pushed, and before the patient crosses from wakefulness to sleep, the surgeon keeps her hand on the patient’s, rubbing the back of the hand as if to say I’m here for you.

Surgery is particularly a field where we meet people at their most vulnerable. We meet them when they’re about to undergo what can be a scary thing. Falling asleep in an unfamiliar environment, and waking up to one, too. Trusting amidst the unknown. Putting their lives in someone else’s hands. This is a field of early hours, emotional tolls, a tough culture. But from what I witnessed on my rotation, there is humanity all around us, if only we would reach out to one another.

In the outpatient setting of surgery, I’ve also witnessed the power of the human touch. During one appointment, a patient’s thyroid was checked due to a suspicious goiter. Biopsy was needed, which meant a large needle would be fired into the neck. The room was dimmed, the patient laid back on the exam table, and silence filled the space. I stood to the side, not sure how to be as helpful as possible. The surgeon acknowledged that there would be a loud sound — he fired the needle twice in the air to let the patient know just how jarring it is. Right before the surgeon pulled the trigger, the patient lifted her head ever so slightly and confessed, “To be honest, I’m scared.”

At that moment, I knew then what I could do to help in some small way. I offered my hand to the patient, and she took it, gripping it as hard as she could when the needle was fired. Afterwards, she looked up and gave a glance of gratitude.

In a field where much of the patient-provider interaction is when the patient is unconscious and under anesthesia, I’ve witnessed the power of a simple gesture, one that I know is in each of us. It may be small, to reach out and hold someone’s hand, and yet, it can make all the difference.

Anna Delamerced is a medical student at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. She was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio and enjoys exploring the crossroads of writing and medicine, and listening to patients tell their stories. She is also a 2018–2019 Doximity Author.

More from Op-Med