A Patient's Perspective

The Importance of Touch


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Am Fam Physician. 2007 May 15;75(10):1482.

I have a physician who's almost impossible to see. But when I see him, he sits down, he's there, and I have the sense I have his full attention. I think that the act of sitting down and being on the same level as the other person, having two chairs—these things make an enormous difference.

When you have liver disease, you're being palpated and percussed with some regularity. It's my favorite part of an examination. When I first became a patient, before hepatitis C was an epidemic, there was more percussing going on! Now, it seems to me from experience, doctors do less of that than they used to. In my case, it's partly because of imaging devices and sonograms, and partly because doctors only have time to look at synthetic functions and numbers. There is also the sense that the numbers, the liver enzymes—even for a patient who knows a fair amount about their illness, like me—are inside your body, and this increases your desire for the physician to hear your body, and so in some way to hear your story. I always feel sort of empty at the end of an exam when that has not occurred, because I feel like being seen as a human being has everything to do with being touched.—RICHARD McCANN, 54


I met Richard McCann, a writer and teacher, at a public reading. He read from his essay, “To Whom It May Concern,” a letter to the unknown donor of his liver.1 “Dear donor,” he read, “sometimes I feel I love you more than anyone in life. After all, you're life itself to me. Other times, I tell myself this: You're someone who died, that's all. It's sad, it's awful, really, but there's no need to get all false and sentimental. Dear dead zero. Dear no one at all. You died. But not for love of me. Here's a secret: I talk to you all the time.” The audience became hushed, and I was transfixed. Since then, I have invited Richard McCann to talk to medical students about his experiences as a patient. Over time, we have developed a cordial friendship. Once in a while, he sneaks in a request: “Can you get me a flu shot?”



1. Richard McCann. To whom it may concern. Washington Post Magazine. March 5, 2000.


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