I’m a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) and I was raised in the Midwest. When I moved to Orlando for college a few decades ago, I was astonished at how much unsolicited touching occurred. I often had to explain to people that it wasn’t that I didn’t like them, it was just that they were in my personal bubble without invitation and it freaked me out. As an introvert, I didn’t usually say much in the moment, just probably had the weirdest look on my face and unnatural stiffness as I tolerated the unexpected touching.
Sorry to all the well meaning people who just wanted to give me a hug! Really, I’m sorry. I didn’t get it and it’s taken me some time to adjust.
I think I’d adjusted a bit in the few decades I was in Orlando for college and after law school to the hugging and other cultural differences involving personal touch and then I was diagnosed with Stage IV Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) in 2017.
All at once, the majority of the human touch I received caused pain. From the phlebotomists who stuck me to draw blood regularly to the surgeons who cut me open for a variety of reasons to the nurses who would access my port with a gigantic needle to give me medication to the physical therapists who would push me through pain to strengthen my muscles, the medical treatment meant my body was touched over and over and over, causing pain over and over and over. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the medical treatment that is keeping me alive, keeping my bones strong, keeping my pain in check, keeping me active and connected with my children, it was just a huge adjustment and has changed my perception of human touch irrevocably.
This isn’t an indictment of the healthcare workers who had to do their jobs. Most did their best to be gentle, most tried very hard to adjust while watching my reactions, and I know that most of it was just necessary. I’ve learned that I have to give feedback, that I have to speak up when something isn’t feeling good, that they don’t read my body language well all the time and my high pain tolerance often gives people the wrong impression.
- I will never forget the ex-Marine with biceps the size of my thighs who injected me with radiation for the 3.5 hour MRI of my back in preparation for surgery, and was so gentle and kind and nearly cried with me when I was writhing in pain and trying so hard to not freak out about being in a closed tube that long.
- I will never forget the phlebotomist in the hospital who had to stick me in my hand every 2-3 hours and when I cried and told him to stop, refused to touch me any longer until they’d accessed my port, which I’d been asking to happen for two (2) days.
- I will never forget the paramedic doing a rotation in the emergency room who was training and his access of my port was literally the second time he’d ever done it and I didn’t feel a thing.
- I will never forget the nurse who, at my very first chemo and the very first time my port had ever been accessed, who declared that she’d never had an issue in more than 20 years and missed the target in the middle of the circle, causing intense pain since I’d had surgery to insert the port a mere two (2) days earlier.
- I will never forget the nurse who insisted on accessing the vein in my hand in preparation for surgery, did something I couldn’t see and I got to see my blood spurt out and spill on the floor.
- I will never forget the anesthesiologist who refused to access my port when the IV in my arm failed right before a surgery and accessed a vein in my hand while I was shouting, “I don’t consent, I don’t consent,” and told the nurse anesthetist to put me under immediately. I woke up after that surgery with my port accessed, both veins in the crook of my elbows accessed (including my left arm that sported a tag warning that they shouldn’t) and my right hand. I made sure to report his violation immediately and nothing happened.
- I will never forget the people who were gentle, even while they were hurting me, and I will never forget the roughness of the more “experienced” nurses who told me I couldn’t possibly feel anything when I was, again, writhing in pain. By far, the newer nurses and the male nurses were the most kind and the most gentle. These touches stay with me and the memory of those touches are recorded in the very cells of my body.
What I do know now, is that I more than appreciate the human touches from people who are not doing something medical to my body. I appreciate more the hugs that were commonplace here in Miami before the pandemic, the air or real kisses on the cheek from men and women alike, the invasions of my personal bubble that communicate kindness and love and happiness that I’m me. I’m not always comfortable in those embraces, but I’ve learned that humans need human touch, humans need to know that they are loved and accepted through touch, and this lesson will stay with me, recorded in my very cells, irrevocably.