Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Magic Touch

I just got back from my last vacation week of the year in Naples, FL for a plastic surgery conference. After hours upon hours of fluorescent lighting in the hospital, getting there before the sun is up and often leaving after it has already set most of the time, it was nice to spend every waking moment I possibly could in the sunlight. I lounged by the pool, oiling my, already bronzed to the point of calling into question my ethnicity, skin to the chagrin of every plastic surgeon walking by- “Don’t you know better?”
“Yes. And I don’t care.”
Victoria and I signed up for “serenity” massages in the spa. They showed us to the “zen meditation lounge.” There, we were supposed to “take in the tranquility” and become at peace with ourselves. Victoria had no problem doing this- she fixed herself a chamomile pomegranate tea and sat back, listening to Enya on repeat in the background. I sat up on the edge of my chair, legs crossed, shaking my foot and looking at my watch.
“Shouldn't we to tell somebody we’re ready?” I asked Victoria, as she sat back, eyes closed.
“This is the zen meditation lounge. They’ll come when they’re ready. Relax.”
“I don’t know how,” I said. I don’t know how, I realized.
Finally, my masseuse came down and said, “Alexandra, follow me,” in a deep, soothing tone. I followed her up the stairs, trying to make small talk with the woman who was about to rub my naked body with oil, but she wasn’t having any of it. She told me to undress and get on the bed, and left the room. I slipped out of my robe and lay down on the table. She walked in and said, “You can actually get under the sheet,” in that same deep tone, after she saw me uncomfortably posed on the table.
“Oh yeah, of course,” I stammered, slipping under the sheet. Well, this isn’t off to an awkward start at all, I thought to myself.

She started with my neck, rubbing her hands with warm oil. It was the perfect amount of pressure- inciting just enough pain to feel like it was working but not enough to disturb the lull into which I was settling. I thought to myself this probably would be a little better if I had been some hot, young cabana boy rather than an overweight middle-aged woman. But, then again, maybe not- she was damn good. She went down my back to my thighs then to my calves, rubbing the oil into my skin. NOW, I was relaxed. My 80 minute massage, which I thought was going to last an eternity, ended in what seemed like minutes with the ding of a gong. I went back to the zen tranquility room and sat down next to VZ, sipping my post-massage protein smoothie I was given.
“I think I’m relaxed now,” I said. Too bad my resident salary precluded me from weekly $ 200 massages- that would solve the whole relaxation issue.

“You cannot forget how important human touch is. Even if it’s not from an intimate acquaintance, the hug or touch of a total stranger can have a huge impact.”
She was absolutely right. The human touch can be such a powerful force. And although I never considered myself to be “touchy feely”, I was beginning to realize maybe I was more so than I had previously thought. I have noticed the power of touch when dealing with patients and their families as well. Patients notice the way you touch them- I’ve heard them comment when someone comes into a room, gruffly and hurriedly puts a hand on them, perform whatever it is they need to do, then walks out of the room. Versus- the person who sits at eye level and explains his/her actions and proceeds gently and slowly. I had a patient remind me of that once, and I will not forget it. I was post-call, had been up 30+ hours, and had already rounded with my team. It was about 12pm. I just needed to take some staples out of a patient, then I could finally go home and go to sleep. This was something routine that I had already done hundreds of times. I walked into the patient’s room, approached her and started to remove her bandage. She was on the phone, but I figured this was such a simple thing, I’d just do it and not interrupt her conversation. “Whoa, whoa, whoa!” She said, “Can’t you tell me what you’re doing first?” Tired and ready to go home, I had forgotten that something mundane and routine to me was completely novel to her. Now, I really felt like an ass. I apologized, explained what I was about to do, and gently took out the staples. I now try never to forget what’s routine to me can be quite an anxiety-provoking event to someone else. In addition, the manner in which you touch a person does not go unnoticed, and can have a huge impact on how a patient perceives you, even if the ultimate goal is the same. “Touchy feely” may have been "gross" as an adolescent and even looked upon an a sign of weakness. However, with age, I’m realizing not only is it ok, it’s necessary both for my patients and for myself.