Before entering medical school, paramedic school taught me how to comfort patients with a calm and reassuring touch.
Creative Arts In Medicine | March 13, 2023 | 2 min read
By Drea Burbank, MD, Putumayo, Colombia
You have surgeon’s hands
Encased in smooth rubber
With blood smoothed over the wide knuckles and
Dexterous movements with a fine angle
At the base of your thumb
Which sometimes I watch
When you are looking at
Tiny, curved needles and flashing fingers and the
Twisting thread that looks like the
Fine hairs around your ears
Under the bright lights
Love is sometimes just the seeing of the thing
Without the wanting of the thing
And I see your
I had astounding luck to attend paramedic school before medical school. It was tradesmen’s training in medicine. Eager young things, we crowded plastic chairs in the morning wearing dark blue uniforms. Each day we learned Most Important Thing, the thing that would keep you alive until you saw the “real doctors” at the hospital. Then in the four hours of the afternoon we clumsily practiced simple rapid exams on each other by turns.
In 15-minute timed bursts we crammed each other onto backboards, fumbled with stethoscopes, drove IV needles in meandering paths, and dropped each other on the ground. All the things you don’t want to do to patients, we did to each other. Until one day, we didn’t.
I’ve been curious for a while about the embodiment of a healer. How being a healer penetrates the way you walk, stand, and touch things. What is this? Can it be taught, or does it simply develop?
The first month was hard, I didn’t want anyone to touch me because their hands were so clumsy. Too light, unskilled, undirected, awkward. I knew with stark embarrassment that mine were the same. But by the second month, something changed. No one wanted to be the one giving a clumsy exam, and we all knew what clumsy felt like. So, we began to experiment with firm-calm pressure, clear-crisp movements, precisely coordinated lifts. And by the third month, we knew. Somehow, we knew, and without any explicit lessons, exactly how to touch a patient. Because it was how we wanted to be touched. Reassuring, purposeful, and quick.
It is also how you touch horses, for anyone who wonders. Like you know and won’t hurt them. Like they can trust you.
We didn’t do this in medical school, unfortunately. Something medico-legal, and really a disservice to students I feel. But some disciplines look for it.
The surgeons know. They know a good pair of hands when they see them, and when you know what to look for . . . it’s beautiful.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.