The Healing Touch
To cure sometimes, to relieve often, to comfort always. -attributed to Hippocrates
I saw Mr. C’s last name on the board. Was he still alive? No, the first initial didn’t belong to him…He was long gone…
The first time I met Mr. C, he was slumped in a chair, unable to move his right leg. Gray speckled his brown hair, the same shade of brown as his eyes, now tearing from pain. His wife grasped a folder full of notes from their physicians, carrying a diagnosis they could not pronounce for a cancer rarely diagnosed in adults.
I had never heard of the term, but it sounded dreadful. I was a third year medical student, eager to prove myself on the wards. Not wanting to admit my lack of knowledge to the patient, I scribbled down the diagnosis to look up on a nearby computer.
When I did a literature search, I found only a few cases that occurred in adults. There was no treatment. The cancer started in bone and muscle and would grow and spread, to lymph nodes, to the liver, to the brain. Prognosis: weeks, months if lucky. What hope was there for Mr. C?
Yet the eyes of Mrs. C gazed into mine with both worry and hope. Putting on a professional demeanor, I asked, “Can you tell me more about why you’re here today?”
She explained, “We were in the Caribbean, on our second honeymoon a month ago–we’ve been married thirty years. My husband had been complaining about some pain in his thigh, so I rubbed some ointment–I have the bottle here if you want to see it–onto his leg. That’s when I felt a lump. It just didn’t feel right. I had to argue with him for days until he would see a doctor. The hotel doctor said it was a ‘pulled muscle’ and that it would get better in a few days.”
But the “pulled muscle” did not go away. It grew rapidly, expanding to the size of an orange by the time they returned home. They went to their family doctor, who referred them to an oncologist, who in turn referred them to a famous cancer institute. The institute recommended that they return home to discuss options with a local oncologist.
Even though I woke Mr. C at 6 am each morning during rounds, he always greeted me with a smile. I examined his leg, measuring the size of the tumor to see if it was responding to radiation and steroids, touching different areas of his leg to test his sensation, checking for muscle tone and strength. When I was done, he said, “Thank you. You have the healing touch.”
I couldn’t look him in the eye. Did he grasp that there was no chance of a cure? Surely his oncologist had advised him on his prognosis during their meetings. Did he understand that the treatments had severe side effects, such as nausea and vomiting, weakness, and confusion?
Mr. C wore a wooden cross around his neck. I asked, “Did someone make that for you?”
He replied, “My nephew.”
I noticed the Bible beside his bed: “Are you spiritual?”
“Well, I try to be.”
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