The Power of TouchBy Rachel Toor
As featured in the May 2007 issue of Running Times Magazine
I’m looking at the chart on the wall showing that my mother has no white blood cells left. They’ve been gone for three days now. I’m at her bedside, where I’ve been, 12 hours a day, every day, in a hospital in a city that is not ours. It’s been a hard week.
To treat her multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood, her doctors have given my mother a massive dose of chemotherapy that wiped out her body’s ability to defend itself. A few months before, they had stimulated growth of her own stem cells and then harvested them, putting them on ice for the months it took to get the disease under control. A couple of weeks ago she was deemed strong enough to withstand this new assault on her fragile self. They eliminated her immune system and gave her back her stem cells, protean soldiers who come in, see what needs to be done, then set about doing it.
Her body has reacted as expected. She has felt increasingly fatigued, developed painful sores in her mouth and throat, and then, last night, spiked a fever.
In medicine bad things often happen at night, when the experienced attending docs are home watching television or sleeping. Those left minding the store are residents—people who have been doctors from 15 minutes to a couple of years, and who rotate through various services, becoming on-call experts for a few months at a time.
A long time ago I lived with a doctor, Andrew, and overheard many late night phone calls from flummoxed residents needing help and advice. Andrew always thanked them for calling, and usually he told them that their assessments were correct. But I’ve also heard stories of fatal screw-ups, and understand that medicine is as much of an art as it is a science. Often what a physician has to go on is a good gut—the experience of having seen a lot of patients, having lived with the vicissitudes of a particular disease.
The resident on call came in. He looked like he was about twelve. He asked my mother a couple of questions about the reaction to penicillin she’d had when she was a kid. He decided it was more likely an intolerance than a true allergy and said he was going to give her a drug in the same class.
On my friendliest days, I am a pit bull. Around my sick mother, I make harpies look seductive. Why give her something that may cause a bad reaction? Why risk it? I whipped out my cell phone and called Andrew. He said the line about intolerance versus allergy was a classic resident stance. But, he said, Why risk it? There are plenty of other antibiotics. What about cipro?
I said to the resident, What about cipro?
We squared off. In my corner there’s me, exhausted, depleted, and anxious, but having, on my cell phone, the director of a Duke clinic telling me to tell the resident to call his attending physician. In his corner, weighing in at maybe 180 on a five-and-a-half-foot frame is a fresh-faced guy with a ready smile who¹s working overnight shifts and learning to be a doctor.
He said he’d check with the pharmacist.
Then we started chatting. Or rather, I started grilling him. I found out he’d gone to med school near where I used to live. A couple of quick jabs about basketball, then he allowed that he’d had a lot of time between college and med school. I asked what he’d done. He said he’d been a professional track athlete and then a middle school teaching assistant.
Mile and 5,000 meters. Mile and 5,000 meters.
Close to four minutes flat for the mile; 14:21 in the 5K, when, he said, he had mono. Why didn’t you run a faster 5K when you were healthy? (Pit bull, I know.) He’d ruptured discs in his back that ended his career and kept him from the Olympic Trials in 1996. He took off 11 months, gained 60 pounds, and missed his window.
He left the room. I calmed down. My mother was getting sleepy.
Then Guy McCrea popped back into the room and asked to see me. He sat me down at a computer and showed me protocols the doctors had written; he explained what everything meant with the patience and gentleness of a parent. We’ll give her cipro, he said.
We sat side by side and realized we had friends in common, having lived in the same place at the same time. He’d run against my buddies, and beaten all of them. Because he stayed on the track, I didn’t recognize his name. But I recognized something in him.
I asked, three times, if it bugged him that he’d never broken four minutes. He just smiled and said no. I pushed, wanting to know what had motivated him. Running was something I knew I could do, he said. He told me that he had grown up here, in upstate New York, and was the first of his five siblings to go to college. Same for his wife, who he’d been with for 20 years. He talked about her with the twinkle and blush you see in the recently smitten.
No one thought I could make it to college, he said. No one thought I could be a track athlete. Or go to medical school. But I knew I could. I knew I could.
When the resident had first come into my mother’s room, I noticed he’d touched her lightly as he spoke. Doctors can diagnose many ailments without ever doing a physical examination. But there is something powerful about touch; when we are weak we need connection. Good docs know this.
That night, as my mother’s fever began to wane, I knew that her doctor had touched me as well. It’s not that I need my mother’s caregivers to be runners, to know the things I know, to share a passion. But that night, when I was scared and confused, it sure didn’t hurt.