One of the enduring joys of this job is learning from the person who is going through treatment.
Liesl's* several children all lived out of town, but one of them always drove down for her treatments. All twelve of them. For her birthday, they decided to get together and buy her a massage to go with each of the last four chemo treatments. This is how I had the pleasure of meeting her.
For her last four chemo cycles, Liesl (and whichever son or daughter) arrived at my office the day after her infusion. Each time, Liesl walked herself slowly back to my office with me. She gave me the same list of side effects, each time just a little bit worse than the last. She would lay in a supported, semi-reclined position while I gently held her feet, hands and head. After the massage, she would take my arm for support, walk with me to the waiting room, then give me a hug before she left.
At her last appointment, Liesl asked me to do her a favor. She knew I was connected to some of the staff at her treatment center so she told me, "Please tell them. Tell them they need to touch people." She went on to assure me that she felt she had received good care from caring people, but that it disturbed her that they never seemed to take a minute to just touch their patients. To lay a hand on their arm, or give them a gentle hug. It made her feel cold and somewhat neglected, she said. Cancer treatment was scary enough, she said, without feeling isolated like that. "I have my family there," she said, "but what about the people who don't?"
What she said to me wasn't anything different than what I say to people pretty much all the time, but for some reason it hooked deep into my heart. I wondered, when do I touch people purely for comfort, compassion and to show that they are special to me? Outside of work, when do I do this? And when am I comfortable receiving this kind of touch from my friends and family? This happens a shockingly small amount, if I'm being honest.
I don't have any answers today. I don't have any wisdom. There is just the knowledge, and gratitude to the woman who brought it out for me to look at. There are so many complicated, important things facing the world in general right now -- issues that divide us and might even harm us. From one perspective maybe it seems frivolous for me to spend so much time and brain space worrying about how much we touch each other, and trying to change that.
But then, I ask myself (and you), if you can touch someone with gentleness and true compassion, doesn't that make it harder to objectify, deny or hate them? So, in addition to the staff at the treatment center, I am sending you Liesl's message: with compassion and an open heart, just touch people.
*--name and identifying details have been changed