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About More Voices

Every month More Voices invites readers to contribute short nonfiction prose pieces of 40 to 400 words on a healthcare theme.

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Hands

Untitled (A Medical Student's First Patient)


I was terrified the first day of lab. Terrified of the slice of a scalpel through human skin. And, most of all, terrified of how I would react to the shock of making that first cut. 

I did make that first cut and many more afterward. I didn’t pass out, and eventually my heart stopped pounding when I picked up the scalpel. As time went on, we learned an impossible amount about the way humans are made, the way the pieces fit together. That was your gift to us, and I want to thank you.

Though I must admit, it felt almost paradoxical to learn so much about you and so little at the very same time.

Relay Race

 
I sit across from my sixty-year-old patient, whom I know to be a sprightly woman, although she is now busy scanning the floor with her eyes.
 
I place my hand over her interlaced fingers. "What's the matter?" I ask. 

Death Watch


Even dying, Dad fills the hospital bed. He's a big man. His slumped body bears two bed sores, one on each leg. A matching set.

Once, he ruled me. A slap of one hand hand here. A smack of his other hand there. "I'll give you something to cry about."

Careful Fingers


It was a Friday night in February. I was finishing up a poster for a conference on cancer genomics I had to attend the following Monday. As I worked, I thought about the possibility of making mistakes on the data analysis.

Gingerly, I went back to the raw data and repeated the process. Highlight this portion of the data. Make sure the data is valid. Copy and paste it into the statistical software. Click this button before pressing "Enter." My eyes darted across the screen, watching every move my fingers made.

Bare Hands and an Open Heart

 
I am constantly obsessing over fingers and toes in the ICU. They can tell us so much about whether our high-tech machines and drugs are helping to keep our patients' bodies perfused with oxygenated blood. Some patients' fingers and toes are warm and pink. Some are cold and black, even falling off. A lot are dirty...really dirty. Like with actual dirt clogged under overgrown nails. I won't lie and pretend that these nails don't gross me out a little bit. Or deny that I typically wear gloves when I am touching these patients' hands or feet.

Rough Start

 
Approaching the hospital bassinet, I glimpse his hair first--long, carrot-colored fuzz sticking out in all directions from his pink, bowling-ball scalp. A chubby, scrunched face comes into view next, cherry-red lips forming a Cheerio and one eyelid wavering just enough to reveal a soft blue puddle beneath it.

Gingerly, I slide my hands under his sausage-like arms, my fingers cradling the doughy curves of his tiny neck, caressing the orange-yellow cornsilk on his occiput. Slowly, I lift him from the sterile white mattress he’s called home for the month since his exit from the womb, since his insurmountable hurdles began.

A 3:00 a.m. Phone Call

 
When the phone rang at 3:00 a.m., as I reached out my hand to answer it I knew the call was bringing bad news. On the other end of the line, I heard my dad's croaky, Parkinsonian voice stammer,"Rozzie, I'm so cold. Come here and help me; I can't reach the blanket to cover myself." It seemed like forever before he was able to squeeze out the additional information that he'd called the front desk at the assisted-care facility where he lived, but Jose, the night attendant, had said he was alone and couldn't leave the desk, even for a few minutes. 

I told my dad I'd take care of the problem, dialed the front desk number, and listened to Jose explain that the other night attendant had left for an emergency, and he was under strict orders to never leave the desk unattended.

A Lifeline of Yarn

 
During my internship in general surgery, I had few opportunities to go into the operating room, yet I was itching to put my hands to work. I heard around the hospital that a transplant surgeon I admired was a talented knitter. So I signed up for a basic knitting class at Michaels craft store, learned my knits and purls, and began constructing lopsided scarves using inexpensive, scratchy acrylic Red Heart yarn. I was quickly addicted to my new hobby.

Suzanne

 
I still remember the night I decided to become a nurse. My eight-year-old daughter had been admitted to the hospital following an emergency appendectomy, and I stayed overnight on the pediatric unit with her. A nurse named Suzanne came on at 11:00. She had short blond hair, a pink jacket and an air of matter-of-fact confidence. I can’t picture her face any more, but I can still see her hands--checking my daughter's dressing, using a pillow to prop her on her side, smoothing the blanket over her shoulders.

Lipstick

 
My mother's scent, Replique, always entered my bedroom an instant before she did. The message my nose carried to my brain, then on to my heart, was "She's going out tonight." 
 
She would first sit on the edge of my mattress. The comfort of her nearness would always be overshadowed by the sadness that I knew would overtake me once she left me alone. But we both pretended it didn't matter. She'd say all the requisite things like "Sleep tight" and "See you in the morning" and "I love you." And then she would kiss my hand and be gone--leaving behind a waxy, deep-red imprint of her lips, pressed onto my skin. 

Stubborn Thumbs

 
My maternal grandmother was a psychic medium. She read cards professionally and taught me card-reading when I was child. As a teen, wanting an intuitive skill no one else in the family possessed, I went to the library, checked out books on palm reading and studied them.
 
Throughout my working life, I kept this hobby to myself. Yet I used it both consciously and subconsciously; I believe nurses possess a clairvoyance born of compassion and the will to heal. We earn this through study and years of practice. Yet it is also a gift of heart and mind.

The Abdominal Exam

 
"Your fingers are your eyes to see beneath the skin," my stepfather says to me. "When you examine your patients, close your eyes and imagine what is beneath the surface."

He and I--an experienced physician and a nascent medical student, respectively--are sitting on our living-room couch next to a twenty-year-old neighbor who's asked for advice, after explaining that he's had a sore throat, fever, and fatigue for the past two weeks.

Letter to My Patient

 
Dear Ms. S,

I'm honored to have known you, I'm glad I had a chance to hold your hand before your surgery, and I will forever remember you as my first patient who passed away.

Within the first few seconds of meeting you, I knew you were a sweet person and had a wonderful, giving soul. I hope you are at peace where you are now. I hope you are no longer suffering.

Clapping Hands

 
"May I present to you the graduating class of meds..."
 
The uproarious burst of applause that always follows this statement is a wonderful sound--one that I've heard echoing through nine years now of medical graduation ceremonies. It's the sound of the clapping hands of proud parents, exultant students, happy faculty and supportive staff who are all so glad to see this moment come.

Blessing Hands

 
During Hospital Week each year, the staff of our Chaplaincy Department go all over the hospital to bless the hands of caregivers. It is a simple ritual to validate the sacred work of caring for others. With anyone who feels comfortable participating, we chaplains take a little lotion, place it on the staff member's hands, and, while clasping their hands, say, "[Name], I bless these hands of yours, which labor in the care and healing of others in the name of the one who brings healing to us all. Amen." 
 
Here are some of the things I've heard in the course of a twenty-four–hour period as I blessed the hands of everyday caregivers, holding their hands and looking them in the eyes:

Gloves on Hands

 
When my internal medicine residents put on gloves to examine a patient's normal abdominal skin, I see red. Don't they know that the easiest way to make our patients feel dirty and repellent, leprous and untouchable, is to deny them the skin of our hands?
 

The Apparition

The drug wore off, and in a minute's time I travelled from epidural bliss to full-on, body-wrenching pain. An ominous feeling welled up inside me, and then it came bursting out in a primal scream.

Butterfly Wings

 
Like the wings of a butterfly, Ma's hands were always in motion. Making beds with perfect hospital corners. Gliding the iron across Dad's shirts. Breading veal chops and turning dough into chocolate chip cookies. Washing dishes and clothes. Vacuuming and dusting. Ringing up sales at the children's store where she worked.

Icy Cold

"Your hands are cold."

I heard these words throughout my third year of medical school, the year during which we first touched patients on a routine basis.

My hands were cold. I was nervous; how could I not be? What a strange experience for me--asking strangers to disrobe, then touching their bare skin.