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The clock moves slowly, but our daughters make it to the hospital before they take me away to surgery, and I am really glad. Now that they are here, I am ready to get this over with, ready to get my new heart. I tell the girls and my wife, Stacy, goodbye, and try to reassure them all will be fine. The operating room is not far away, just a short roll down the hall, and before I know it, I am strapped to a narrow board, my arms tied down, various wires and gadgets attached to me. Three masked women in long gowns and “shower caps” work busily. One is the anesthesiologist, and I assume the other 2 are some sort of technicians who assist her. Minutes away from being placed under, I am ready to go, and clearly they are too. A phone rings and one of the techs answers. There is a problem.
The doctor says not to give him anesthesia yet, she reports. Says there has been a delay and he does not want him under so long. I take that to mean the heart’s trip to Dallas is delayed for some reason, and all is still well. Just another wait. Unfortunately, Stacy, down the hall in the waiting room, is told simply that there is a delay, and she takes that to mean maybe the heart was not as good as expected. Maybe this surgery will not happen at all, she frets, her frazzled nerves tearing her apart. She knows this is almost certainly my last chance—days to live at most, maybe only hours.
For me it’s more of an immediate problem: my back is very angry. Most days the pain is quite mild and I do not even notice it. Certain activities can make it excruciating, however, like lifting heavy things, pushing a lawnmower too far, sitting in a car too long, or lying in a hospital bed for 2 weeks followed by being strapped to an ironing board in an operating room! In no time, my back is screaming in pain, and I beg the doctor to untie me and give me relief.
I cannot move, she explains. This will happen quickly when it happens, and we may not have time to do this all over again. Every minute counts. I lie still and quiet, trying to think about other things, trying to push the pain away, arching and stretching in a vain effort to gain some advantage over it. The technicians tend to a few more chores, and then there is nothing for any of us to do but wait. The doctor does not leave me there alone, though. Instead she pulls up a seat beside me and we talk. It makes the time go by faster and takes my mind, at least a little, off my back. She seems genuinely interested in who I am and what I do. She asks about my family and my work. I sense that chitchat does not come easily to her, which makes me appreciate the effort all the more. The delay continues, and the phone still does not ring. I agonize with my back, while not far away my wife agonizes with her doubts.
Then the most amazing thing happens. This well-educated, highly skilled, probably bored and maybe sleepy doctor reaches out and touches me. Just 2 fingers on my lower back. She rubs tentatively and I feel almost instant relief from the worst of the pain. More importantly, it is a human touch in a cold sterile room in a cold sterile place, and it somehow touches me deep inside too. Human kindness. Compassion. Reaching out to someone in need, someone she does not even know but who she knows she can help. She rubs my back for well over an hour. Instead of lying alone, hurting and worried—I would not have blamed her for going to another room and taking a nap or eating a sandwich—I am comforted by this magnificent doctor. Word finally comes; the heart is on site. She instantly changes from compassionate neighbor to skilled doctor. Within minutes I am out, the surgery begins, and well before dawn it’s over, and my new heart is pumping blood through my beat-up body and starved organs.
It all happens so fast, I never even get to thank her for taking such good care of me, not just during the operation but as we strangers shared 2 h in a sterile room, 1 sitting on an uncomfortable stool and the other strapped to a torturous board. I do not even know her name, but I will never forget what she did for me that long night. There’s nothing like human touch when we are hurting and alone and sick, and she offered me that without being asked. Science has proved that touch has the power to lower blood pressure and reduce stress and produce a calming effect. Comforting human touch can act as a numbing agent, even against severe pain. In my case, human touch made me feel like it was going to be okay. It chased away my fear and my loneliness. I hope when given the opportunity to do the same for someone else, I will respond the same way. Not because it’s easy or comes naturally to me but because there is nothing as powerful as reaching out to touch someone in need. It can make all the difference in the world.
The head of the entire heart and lung program, a full professor at the university hospital, is one of my many docs. He spends time talking to me and my family, explaining things, as well as simply visiting with us. He is a busy man but never appears to be in a hurry because he knows this part is important too. Now, after my lifesaving transplant, he knows that in many ways it is more important than ever to engage me. Lots of doctors separate themselves from their patients, using the handy props of the ever-present clipboard—the all-important “chart”—and the foot of the hospital bed to create a physical separation. My doc does not do that. Instead he comes around beside me and enters my space. If a stranger walked by and looked in, except for the white coat, he would think the doc was just another visitor. He smiles and laughs, and we joke with one another. It builds rapport and trust, and that builds confidence. It all adds up to a happier and more positive patient, and that in turn improves prospects for success and shortens healing times. One day, he sits on the side of my bed. We visit briefly, and then he does the most remarkable thing. I do not know if it is intentional or if he even knows he does it. But this day, as he rises to go, he reaches down, takes the lump under the covers that is my foot, and squeezes it! Like my wife or my mother would. It is how one human being wordlessly conveys to another that he cares about him, but more importantly, it sends a silent message of reassurance: “It is going to be okay.” Human touch (Figure 1). That incredible, wonderful thing that reaches into our very souls. It is not magic nor is it myth. Science long ago proved its value. We humans are made to be touched. It makes us feel secure, connected, cared for. It reassures us, lowers our blood pressure, reduces our anxiety, and gets us home faster. In my case, my doc told me he cared, that he was there for me, and that he would take care of me. How very incredible.
Please note: Mr. Godwin has reported that he has no relationships relevant to the contents of this paper to disclose.
- 2018 American College of Cardiology Foundation