The Hand of Comfort


I am a man. Really I am. And men don’t cry-correct?

Well this one does-not very often, but when I do it is usually a good moment to pause and reflect on the circumstances. Just to check, you know, that I’m still a real man.

Shortly after the birth of our first child, I stayed up one evening to watch Life Is Beautiful, the wonderful Oscar winning film starring Roberto Benigni (1). This film should carry a health warning-beautiful yet haunting as it shifts from delight to horror over two glorious hours. The following morning I tried to describe the film to my wife as we sat in bed over a cup of tea, enjoying a rare moment of peace from our newborn daughter. I didn’t quite manage to get the words out as I choked on the raw emotion of the film I had sat through the previous evening, and tears flowed unexpectedly. My wife looked puzzled, but comforted me as I tried in vain to describe the movie, my emotions associated with it and the new responsibilities I now carried as a father. My wife is still yet to see the film 11 years on-I think the time will come.

Over my medical career I have been reduced to real tears on three, sadly memorable, occasions. These episodes were all slightly different, two involving the death of children and the third an unexpected finding of advancing cancer in a young patient. Each situation remains fresh in my memory but especially the first, despite occurring over 20 years ago-the emergency bleep, a collapsed child, manually ventilating for several hours in our small paediatric unit, the evolving fear of those involved, and the baptism at the bedside by the hospital priest. That day I, and others, will never forget.

On each occasion the tears came suddenly, uncontrollably after the events-that is to say, I managed to hold my emotions whilst I was with the patient or their family, and support them in their most difficult hour, but their trauma entangled me, and abruptly hit me, as I later tried to explain the case to colleagues or my wife (also a doctor). They looked on, reaching out to me, feeling my vicarious pain, and most importantly, they comforted me. A touching hand, a small embrace, a hand on the shoulder from a receptionist, doctor colleague, nurse or my wife was recognition enough-recognition that it was alright to be like this, to be human and upset. Somehow the touching helped-bodily contact soothing the wound.

As doctors we touch people frequently. The handshake as a patient enters the room, the blood pressure check or a physical examination. Mostly this is with implied patient consent-we will seek specific consent for a more intimate examination, but what about the comforting hand? We are doctors, but also we are humans. I would have no difficulty in physically comforting a distressed child, loved one, colleague or even a stranger as a fellow human being-but what about a patient? The human part of me says “don’t be silly, it’s OK” but the doctor part of me says “do be careful”. Our relationship with patients is like no other, and needs to be carefully observed.  I read this account (2) and it resonated with me. There is very little worthwhile work on how patients feel about touch that I could find, although there are many discussion forums that have covered the subject. This was a nice, small, primary care based study that is worth reading (3).

So can I be a real man, a doctor, and a human all at the same time?

I think that understanding your “weaknesses” can be your greatest strength. In my case, one of these is an acceptance of the effect that dealing with difficult cases can have-protecting patients from this but seeking support from those around me when needed.

On several occasions I have found this difficult- I have reached out a hand and withdrawn it, unsure of my role for a moment, leaving patients untouched. This problem can be amplified with female patients. A male doctor, a female patient, a human touch. I have several times been comforted by my (female) GP partner, and I know that in my hour of need I will look for the Hand of Comfort.



12 thoughts on “The Hand of Comfort

  1. Tricia says:

    Instincts are very good if well meaning and heart felt.Any problem lies with the recipient but you are right to be protective of you and yours.

    • Thanks Tricia.There are a lot of variables to consider in these situations.It’s important not to make patients feel uncomfortable-I find it more tricky with patients I know less well.
      Thanks for taking the time to read it.

  2. Frank Bowman says:

    I was taught – and it has served me well over the decades – to count to 10 first before acting on an impulse to do/say something; mostly, this means quite correctly not following that impulse.

    • That’s an interesting suggestion-I believe it is discussed in some situations. One GP registrar has told me the topic was discussed at a recent meeting.
      Thanks for reading.

  3. Richard this blog resonated with me as I spent many weeks in hospital after removal of a brain tumour and was on the receiving end of many instinctive acts of kindness which I called my ‘everything moments’ They all involved touch! A hand on my arm, arm round my shoulders and a hug from the physios when I first walked again. I blogged about it and called it ‘Kindness is Magic’ Interestingly a NHS colleague recently said to me that they had experienced an unintentional consequence of reintroducing manual BP recording, patients liked the contact!! Keep it up I say

    • Thanks Dawn-nice to hear from the patient perspective.The difficulty, I think, is striking the balance for all patients-getting it right without overstepping the mark.I find it particularly tricky with patients I know less well.
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

  4. Kate Dawson says:

    This is not confined to men. As the ‘nice lady GP’ the consoling hand is often sought by patients. But somehow, I can do this for patients and not for myself. It is only by keeping myself in another ‘box’ which is more resilient and braver and better and more like the ideal GP. Somehow, patients needing comfort allow me to show feeling, but compassion for myself I find hard to allow.

    • Thanks for that Kate and thanks for reading. We all need to look after ourselves as well- I guess we do it in different ways. The job asks a lot of us at times.
      Best wishes ,

  5. A friend of mine is a doctor, and she says there’s this culture that assumes doctors can ‘take it’… so then she goes and lets it out to her friends. But that must be so hard at times with all the emotions you navigate. I’m glad you are able to find comfort, and it good to hear you can cry. Real men cry, people cry. I reckon sometimes it’s exactly what is needed. ~Catherine

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Catherine. It is hard at times-for doctors as well as patients, and I guess we all find our own ways to deal with that.
      Happy new year!

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