A Simple Touch

Lisa Harvey
Memorial University
Class of 2015

Hemera Technologies/AbleStock.com/Thinkstock

I spent six weeks in Salvador & São Paulo, Brazil on an unofficial elective in both gynecology and ophthalmology during the summer of 2013. Most of my time was spent in private hospitals― those that serve the upper middle class with private insurance. However, I also had the opportunity to spend a few days in one of the public hospitals in Salvador.

Walking into a public hospital one morning, I was taken aback by the striking difference between it and the private hospitals I had already visited. It was hard to believe that a rundown building with only basic amenities was just a short drive away from a private hospital with marble floors, a restaurant and state-of-the-art equipment.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, though; the stark contrast between poverty and wealth is everywhere you look in Salvador. Next to apartment buildings with pools and fitness centres protected by security guards are slums on hills where the poor live.

It wasn’t long after I’d changed into public hospital scrubs that I was thrown into the thick of things. A young woman had arrived in labour, which progressed very quickly. Her baby was ready to make its entrance into the world when I showed up at her bedside.

The woman in labour couldn’t have been older than twenty, and she had shown up to the hospital all alone. She had no analgesia to ease her pain, and no family or friends to press a cool cloth on her forehead or to feed her ice chips. All she had was a crowd of strange faces yelling at her to push. Then there was me, the white girl, clearly looking out of place among the Bahians.

I wasn’t much help, medically-speaking. Other than knowing how to say “please” and “thank you,” my Portuguese was fairly limited.

As I watched this young woman struggle through labour all on her own, sweat and tears dripping down her face, I realized that maybe I didn’t need a mastery of the Portuguese language to show her that I was there to support her. Even though I was a foreigner with little to no clinical experience, maybe I could be of some help.

Standing at her bedside, I reached out my hand, and she grasped it tightly. She looked up at me, and the grateful look in her eyes said more than words ever could. I gave her both of my hands to squeeze until she no longer needed them.

Nine months later, I was in clerkship, on my OB/GYN rotation. One afternoon, we had an older woman who was there for her colposcopy, and it turned out she needed a biopsy. Even though she said nothing, her nervousness was almost palpable―her gaze was fixed determinedly on the ceiling, her fingers clutching her hospital gown tightly.

Though we both spoke the same language, I didn’t need it to communicate. As my resident performed the biopsy, I stood by the patient’s side and reached out my hand once again. She grasped it eagerly, then reached for my other hand, holding on as though I was her lifeline.

After the clinic, I ran into the woman in the hospital lobby. When she spotted me, her face lit up.

“I just wanted to say thank you,” she said. “You were so sweet to me; it was such a help.”

Encounters like these allow me to reflect on the relationships we form with the patients we see everyday, whether on the operating table, in clinic, on the floors, or in the emergency room. I've learned that it’s the simplest gestures that can form a strong bond between healthcare professionals and their patients. I try to keep this in mind whenever I’m in the hospital. It’s all about the touch of a hand, the understanding smile, the squeeze of a shoulder as I go to leave.

I believe these things speak louder than any of the words you say to someone. I can only try to hold on to that belief as I move forward in my medical career.