Touched by Cancer, Touched by Love – Dr Shazza

The healing power of touch during a pandemic


from Luke’s Journal 2021 | Fire in the Belly 2021 | Vol.26 No.1

Dr Shazza is an RMO in Queensland. As a junior doctor who has faced her own health battles, she has found the QHealth system very difficult terrain to navigate. As such, she left their employment feeling very much alone and nothing more than an employee number. She has, however, found great solace in writing. This is one such piece.

Dr Shazza has now moved to locuming, working when she is well enough and undergoing treatment when required. Her experience as a patient has certainly made her a much better doctor.

The world of patient care and medicine has been forever changed. Ironically, every corner of the globe has been ‘touched’ by a term now coined as ‘touch starvation’. It goes against the grain of humanity. We are in essence ‘herd creatures.’ From the moment we hurtle screaming into the world, skin-to-skin contact is greatly encouraged. Yet COVID-19 has taught us to isolate, to be ‘socially distant,’ to avoid hugging or shaking hands. It is the complete antithesis of being human. As Health Professionals it is vital we realise the healing power of touch – even during a pandemic.

As a junior doctor I have found the void of touch an incredible hindrance to the level of patient care I can deliver. But as a Metavivor* I have also experienced first hand the impact COVID -19 has had on my own personal journey as a patient. So how do we ‘survive’ in times of loneliness and isolation? As practitioners how do we navigate this foreign landscape? 

On a personal level my faith has been my rock. I hold fast to this promise:
“‘For I know the plans that I have for you’, declares the Lord, ‘plans…and a future.’” (Jeremiah 29:11). We may not understand why we are facing the challenges we face but trust we must. This is a small part of my story, written in 2019….

“The bureau of statistics recently revealed the number of times someone craves a hug each day is thirteen.”

The Australian Bureau of Statistics recently revealed the number of times someone craves a hug each day is thirteen. Additionally, the time a hug lasts is three seconds. But interestingly the duration of a hug that can have medically healing properties lasts twenty seconds. The lesson: hug long and hug often.

I’ve always been a hugger. In fact, if ‘professional hugger’ was an occupation I’d be a strong candidate for the position.

Touch is a powerful anxiolytic. It dissipates any worries, frustrations or fears. It lets you know someone is there. It speaks volumes through silence. And best of all, it doesn’t cost a damn thing. When words fail us, human touch can prevail.

If a loved one is sick it’s sometimes hard to know what to do… what to say… what to ask… But from my experience, the greatest thing you can do for a loved one is nothing at all. Simply put – just be.
Be present. Be in the moment. Be there. You don’t have to utter a single word. Instead a loving hug, the holding of their hand, simply touching their skin is enough. You are enough.

No present needed.
No trinkets wanted.
No flowers required.

Admittedly, everyone has their own language of love. But if there were to ever be a universal currency, then hugging would be like liquid gold.

There is something safe about a hug. I’m not sure if it’s the warmth of the embrace, the pressure of the loving squeeze or simply the meeting of two heartbeats that makes them so therapeutic. But in that short space of time, suddenly everything feels ok. 

When you’re exposed to continual treatments, procedures and hospital admissions you quickly realise how “dehumanised” and “clinical” our healthcare system has become. You become known as the ‘blood pressure of 190/110’, the ‘white cell count of 0.2’ and the patient ‘awaiting 1g of Ceftriaxone’. Sure, these numbers are important, but sometimes healthcare professionals get so focussed on the numbers they never really see the actual patient in front of them. It’s cold. It’s confronting and it could all be improved through compassion and the power of human touch. 

I’m fortunate in that I have many friends who work in the system, and on the whole I’ve been treated with love and compassion. However, the greatest doctors and nurses I’ve come into contact with haven’t focussed on the numbers but on the person. They don’t give me a yellow jar to pee in, they give me a warm blanket instead. They give me a comforting cuddle before reaching for the complexion-flattering purple chemo gloves and apologise for actually having to wear them. They show a side of humanity that has long been lost in healthcare because of the demands and pressures of the industry. And these are the individuals who you remember because they managed to make your day a little brighter, your anxiety a little quieter and your tears a little drier.

Through the haze of illness I can recall several humbling moments where humanity was on its best display. One moment I will always treasure was when a friend decided to visit. I’d already cancelled on her multiple times and I was wracked with guilt to do it again. But I was feeling more curdled than a bottle of milk left for over a month in the blazing sun. I was nauseated… vomiting… and everything hurt… even breathing. But how bad could it be? A simple visit wouldn’t hurt? Suck it up Shazza and psych yourself… I decided to get a few Zzzz’s in before a shower and her arrival. Upon waking, I noticed the sun had almost set. I heard the familiar screech of the overhead parrots as they made their afternoon pilgrimage home. And I noticed an empty chair sitting right beside my bed.

“When you’re exposed to continual treatments, procedures and hospital admissions you quickly realise how ‘dehumanised’ and ‘clinical’ our healthcare system has become.”

Time can be so fleeting. In the blink of an eye and the snuffle of a snort, my friend had come and gone.

I’d only just missed her. She had only just left. And it was the best sleep I’d had in a long time. I was rested, I was pain-free and my sleep was enveloped with the love of a dear friend sitting watchfully by my side.

“How rude!” I exclaimed at the top of my hoarse voice. 

“Why didn’t you wake me!?!” I insisted on knowing.

“What did she do?” I enquired, still dumbfounded by my Sleeping Beauty moment.

I was reassured that she wasn’t offended. She was the one who insisted I sleep. And she simply sat, held my hand and watched a great episode of Dr Phil and a solid midday movie. 

“What a champion!” I declared. And indeed, she was perhaps more than a champion. We attributed my epic sleep directly to her silent presence that day. And it taught me so much about the power of just “being”. Just “being” with a loved one in their hour of pain, their seconds of nausea and their breaths of overwhelming anxiety is the mark of a human who cares.

Human touch is a powerful healer. It sings with warmth, talks through silence and smiles through frowns. It’s the antidote to loneliness and the treatment to illness. It’s the leveller, the equaliser. When you’re sick, “things” no longer matter, but people do. Without human touch, our lives would be sadder, our pain would be deeper and our souls a little emptier.

Never underestimate your presence. It’s something that can never be unfelt and it streams of liquid gold!!

*A Metavivor is someone with stage IV breast cancer who is still fighting but also surviving. We will never be cured and every day we fight this disease we are Metavivors.

Dr Shazza    
Dr Shazza is an RMO in Queensland. 

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