When I was 19 years old I saw a woman die in slow motion. She wasn’t sick. Her lot in life wasn’t over. But she started dying anyway. I showed up one day, and she was gone.
Wilma* was a patient in a skilled nursing facility. I was her designated “visitor” from the community. We got along splendidly. She was cranky and I was crabby. We both thought we were funnier than we—in all probability—were.
I am absolutely convinced she died of two things: lost hope and no touch. When I first started to visit her, she was receiving physical therapy and working feverously to return to her own home. She had lived in that little house for decades. Raised her kids there. Grown comfortable in her own skin there. And as long as she thought she was going home, she was driven.
But one day, the physiotherapists discontinued care. The aides stopped helping her walk to meals and began wheeling her instead. Her kids no longer made eye contact when they’d visit, then the visits slowly dribbled off altogether.
There was a quiet moment, I am quite sure, when Wilma realised that she was alone. From that day on, she spent her days pulling inward, sitting in her wheelchair, and looking at the dingy parking lot through a dirty window. She stopped talking to me. She asked me to stop coming. I did, and she commenced dying. A month later, she was gone.
The Power of Human Touch
Is it possible for a woman to die before her time from a lack of social interaction and physical touch? A 2015 meta-analysis attempted to address this very question: “Can physical isolation and loneliness increase early death?”
The answer? A resounding yes. In fact, individuals who do not have social support or physical contact find themselves in an elevated risk pool along with patients with more well-documented risk factors, such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
Using touch as a means of communicating when making statements, making requests, waking patients up, encouraging, explaining, asking, comforting, teasing, telling off, hugging and thanking are beneficial for ones health. In other words, being human.
In another fascinating study, a group of researchers examined what would happen to healthy people who were deliberately infected with a pathogen (essentially a virus which acted like the common cold). Those men and women who had social support, and more importantly, those who experienced physical touch, did not get sick or manifested only a mild version of a cold. In contrast, the individuals who lived in a social bubble, who were not hugged or touched during the testing period, became much more clinically ill. In other words, no hugs equaled more bugs.
Physiotherapists, nurses, and nursing assistants provide necessary touch as part of healthcare. We perform ambulation training, assist with transfers, start IVs, help with dressing, and wipe buttocks. And as such, we are in a unique and enviable position: not only are we allowed to touch our patients, we are expected to do so. It’s our job.
We are some of the few professionals left who have this privilege. We get to couple medicine with the undeniable comfort of human touch and kindness.
*Names have been changed to ensure patient confidentiality.