I was deeply shaken to learn I had hypopharyngeal cancer. As a physician, I had access to my hospital's laboratory results, so I took a shortcut: Rather than wait for my surgeon to call me, I looked for my name in my hospital's pathology laboratory log book.
After my name, the log book stated in no uncertain terms: "mildly differentiated squamous cell carcinoma."
I could not believe my eyes. Was this possible? Could it be a mistake? In spite of the hopeful questions that permeated my mind, I knew it was not a mistake: Right here, in front of me, in black and white — my own death sentence. Still, to be convinced that the diagnosis was real, I had to view the biopsy specimens under the microscope myself — and there it was.
In that very instant, my whole world changed. I had always had a sense of invulnerability. Now I was left with uncertainty about my prognosis and future.
I was in a state of desperation and disbelief when I left the pathology laboratory and walked into my internist's office to break the news to him. He slowly got out of his chair without uttering a word and gave me a big, supportive hug.
It felt so good to know that he deeply cared for me beyond our professional relationship. His embrace moved me — made me feel that I was surrounded by those who truly appreciated my pain and distress, and who shared my personal tragedy. It meant much more at that moment than a thousand words of support or elaborate explanations.
It was the power of a caring, human touch. I knew that I was not alone in my future struggles, that he would be beside me all the way.
I had never been hugged by a medical caregiver. Nor had I given a hug to a patient: I always believed in maintaining a professional distance between them and me. Yet at that moment, I learned there may be situations in medical practice where the power of a hug eclipses everything else one can offer.
In the realm of modern medicine, where machines and tests often substitute for close patient-physician contact, this fundamental art is often forgotten. Even a simple pat on the shoulder or a warm handshake conveys genuine care and concern. In fact, there is scientific evidence that human touch can generate oxytocin and endorphins, which ameliorate pain and create a feeling of well-being.
Unfortunately, I had to undergo a total laryngectomy to have my cancer removed. The period after my surgery was very physically and emotionally trying, as I battled numerous medical problems and also struggled to regain my ability to speak. What eased those difficult months was the knowledge that my otolaryngologist's door was always open to me and that he would act immediately to assist me in any way he could. His dedication, emotional support, sincere care and friendliness helped me overcome many of the difficulties and problems I encountered. They were indispensable on my road to recovery.
I sometimes went to his office several times a week — often just to talk with him and tell him how I was doing. I always felt welcomed. He greeted me with a big smile and hugged me every time I left. This simple act created a bond of intimacy between us and made me feel that I had a friend.
My personal experiences changed my attitude toward my own patients. I am less concerned now about maintaining a professional distance or avoiding a caring touch or hug when appropriate. I have learned that such gestures can significantly deepen the healing relationship between patient and physician.
As a laryngectomee, I have found that speaking is often difficult and challenging. So I am fortunate to have discovered that the "power of a hug" can convey so much more than the spoken word.
Brook is a pediatric infectious disease physician at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of the 2010 book "My Voice: A Physician's Personal Experience With Throat Cancer." More at dribrook.blogspot.com; contact Brook at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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