Even A Gloved Touch, An Essay
by Ute Carson
New Reader Magazine NRM, Issue 10, Summer 2020

The evening news brings vistas of wide empty plazas and deserted streets -- no crawling cars, no rushing pedestrians, and an old horror, born of apocalyptic visions following a nuclear disaster, creeps under my skin. Next, the camera abruptly shifts to a hospital where crowds of alien-looking figures, masked and gowned and shielded in face-guards hover over stretchers piled high with blankets and equipment. Everyone is on the move, running down cluttered hallways between belching machines into rooms packed with patients like matches in a box. Hoses and tubes stick into the air, occasionally a foot or an arm is outstretched. Human beings fighting for survival are hooked to huffing ventilators. Hidden under the strange disguises, nurses, doctors and technicians, breathe their own fears as they care for the stricken. They are the good Samaritans risking their lives to save others. Only when I spot a person in civilian clothes, coat bundled under one arm, leaving the building, do I dare to imagine that one single being has won against death and has been released. I rejoice.

My emotions return to the ailing, the dying, their isolation, their loneliness. Why are we so pained by their fate? No loved one holding their hand, no last words of comfort and good-byes. A grandfather crouches on one side of a partition, his palm pressed against the glass to establish a connection to his tiny grandson on the other side. I want to smash the wall between them. Of course, people die alone during an operation or in a car accident but those victims are taken unawares, not knowing that their final hours are spent away from those who could ease their passing.

What happens to our perceptions when we must practice social distancing? How do we communicate? The trend away from personalized doctoring to a more technical approach has long been noticed, along with a shift away from trusting intuitions to a more verifying scientific approach. There is merit and loss in this. My experienced cardiologist informed me of my heart monitor results on her computer screen. "Could you diagnose my problem just by listening to my heart?" I asked. "Yes, I could," was her reply, "but I could not be sure." Some of our senses have atrophied but they are only dormant, waiting to be reawakened.

We are attuned to visual cues such as smiles and frowns but with the emergence of virtual medicine it is often said that we don't need office visits and personal encounters. A phone conversation or Skype will do. We can save time! What are we missing? Interested in interpreting the language of the body I return to a busy waiting room where the big round wall clock keeps time along with me. My gaze wanders to the footwear of every entering patient, the scuffed boots, the floppy sandals, the fashionable sneakers, the brown loafers with the worn-down heels and the occasional high stilettos and I begin to guess at the person's profession, their station in life, their personality. And later in the consulting room, in the physical presence of my doctor, I read his many expressions, including for example a slight shake of the head indicating to the attending student that he should not have mentioned a particular treatment to me before a diagnosis has been made. Behind our masks we are hard to read. Our voice becomes the primary messenger of anxiety and trepidation, reassurance and hope.

Experts predict that handshakes will become a habit of the past. I am totally in favor of prevention and I wash my hands with soap as vigorously as necessary. But I also realize that these hands prepare our daily meals, stroke my husband's cheeks and squash a pesky mosquito on the window sill. I hope we will return to feeling reassurance in a handshake or a reluctance to connect in a slack one. Hands not only harbor germs but are also instruments in our daily lives. Although harm can cling to them, so also can kindness and a healing touch in the laying on of hands.

We are social beings and are inquisitive about the lives of others. Isolation fosters that curiosity, brings out our desire for inclusion. On PBS we are familiar with the anchor's crew. But since they now report from home we are made aware of many personal touches, Judy's flowers in the background, the many books and pictures, Yamish's plant at the window, Amna's striking art, David's attractive striped wallpaper but also his telling that he plays ping-pong with his son in the garage. And when William holds his moving interviews I search to see if there is one cat or two curled up on his couch.

Our neglected senses surface in times of forced distance. Music touches our souls in mysterious new ways, as does bird song. The sun warms our skin with sensuous satisfaction and we gratefully inhale healing oxygen from trees. To bridge isolation we became inventive. In lieu of a party to mark my grandson's 10th birthday, his friends biked by his yard shouting "Happy Birthday" from a safe distance.

Not one sense is more important than another but the tactile one is probably hungered after the most. Animal shelters are emptier than ever before and not just so the owners are forced to exercise while walking their dogs. It's the stroking and caressing we crave. Animals and human beings wither without touch, and babies fail to thrive without physical contact. Being deprived of intimate touch with the ailing and dying, we are also robbed of hands-on mourning. The ancient ritual of washing a deceased body is no longer possible, one of the most consoling leave-taking tasks that helped my sister and me through our grief when my mother died.

Bereft at having to remain at a distance, what can we do? Maybe we can imagine that touch is able to travel through glass and protective clothing like a current, like energy. And maybe in its flow it carries compassion, whispering, "I am here even if you can barely sense my presence behind mask and sterile body armor." In a hospital with all its frantic hustle and bustle looming like a menacing cloud of anguish on an otherwise cobalt-blue, smog-free horizon, I think to myself that nothing can replace love and encouragement. Even a gloved touch is better than none.

- ~ -