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Rushed to the intensive care unit of a New York City hospital, Joey, a five-year-old boy with burns over 97 percent of his body, ended up under the care of nurse Phyllis Sippel. Although the boy's grandmother claimed he had been accidentally set afire with a cigarette lighter, the circumstances seemed suspect, especially since no one from the family visited the child in the hospital.1
The only place Joey could be touched without feeling excruciating pain was a small spot over his right eye. Even though she knew the five-year-old would likely die, Phyllis spent hours rubbing that small area as a means of loving communication. As the boy drifted in and out of consciousness, she tenderly read him stories, hoping that the loving tone of her voice might help. She knew the odds were against his survival, but she was determined to provide him with comfort and compassion. Joey died on hospital day twenty-three, but he died wrapped in love and compassion from a caring nurse.
Phyllis Sippel knew the importance and the power of human touch. The gospels report that Jesus frequently used this power. When a leper approached Jesus, "He[horizontal ellipsis] touched him[horizontal ellipsis]. Immediately his leprosy was cleansed" (Mt 8:3). When families learned Jesus was in their area, Luke reports: "People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them" (Lk 18:15). While physical contact with people, particularly those who are hurting, is vital, there are other ways we can exercise this same power and make a difference in the lives of those who are wounded, injured, discouraged and disheartened. Here are several suggestions for utilizing the lifechanging power of the human touch.
Be a friend to the friendless. Stand by those who stand alone. Befriend the person who has been isolated and marginalized by others. Emulate the biblical character, Job, who described himself this way: "I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper[horizontal ellipsis].I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy[horizontal ellipsis].I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger" (Job 29:12-16).
A more recent example comes from President Abraham Lincoln. One afternoon, the president found on his desk a heartrending appeal for a pardon. It was, however, completely unsupported by the usual sheaf of letters from influential sponsors. "What?" asked the president, "Has this man no friends?" The aide at Lincoln's side assured him that the man hadn't a single friend. "Then I will be his friend," said Lincoln. He signed the pardon.2
Make your love known. Is there someone who has inspired you? Then let him know. Is there someone who has encouraged you? Then let her know. Is there someone whose life you admire? Then let that person know. Is there a friendship that is especially important to you? Then let that individual know. Make your love and feelings known.
In his book, Born for Love, author Leo Buscaglia tells of an "unforgettable" incident that occurred in a classroom at the University of Southern California where he taught. A student had been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, which, in his case, was progressive and terminal. Doctors gave him no hope for recovery. All that he was assured of was that his last days or months of life would be made as painless and comfortable as possible.
Though the news had to be devastating, the man remained positive and determined to live out his final days as normally as possible. Toward the end, he came to class deeply sedated, disoriented and obviously frightened. When the man realized his class attendance was becoming impossible, he made an unusual request. He asked that each of his classmates embrace him one last time. "No sentiment, however beautifully and thoughtfully expressed, seemed to mean as much to that young man as those brief moments of tenderness," writes Dr. Buscaglia. "We were all reminded how very fragile our lives are and how vital it is that we make our love known, no matter our age or condition of health."3
Act promptly and boldly. Respond immediately whenever you see an opportunity to touch someone with kindness. Do not delay or defer. Remember that compassion delayed is compassion denied. Likewise, love delayed is love denied. Be guided by this wisdom from the Roman philosopher Marcus Aurelius Antoninus: "I expect to pass through this world but once; any good thing, therefore, that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to my fellow creatures, let me do it now; let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again."4
Make it personal. When someone you know is facing a major life challenge, offer personal involvement and support. Never in his wildest dreams did Randy Travis believe that he would become a famous country music star. He says that as a young teen, he was out of control, a "messed up high school dropout who'd been drinking and using drugs every single day since the age of fourteen." Also, Travis had been arrested for stealing and totaling his brother's car. Already on probation, he was arrested a second time for breaking into a store. "It was a dumb thing to do, and this time it was serious-already on probation, I'd have to appear before a judge. I was looking at jail time, and I was scared," he says. Even Travis's lawyer was pessimistic, telling the young man: "Randy, I've gotten you out of trouble before, but I don't know about this one. You're looking at five years."
At the time, Travis was singing five nights a week at a small music club in Charlotte, North Carolina. The owner, a short, blond woman, Lib Hatcher, noticed that something was bothering Travis. When asked what was wrong, Travis confessed his troubles to her, explaining that he had to face a judge and possibly five years in prison. To his astonishment, Hatcher, a woman he barely knew, declared: "I'll go there and stand up with you." She followed up on her promise and showed up in court.
As the proceedings ended, Hatcher asked to speak to the judge, saying: "Your honor, this young man is working for me full-time as a singer in my club. He's got a future, and I'll vouch for him." The judge, impressed by Hatcher's plea for Travis, placed him on probation with a stern warning that another violation would result in a prison term. Hatcher's personal involvement was a major turning point in Travis's life, as he realized, "She saw more in me than I saw in myself."5
Apply these three Cs toward those who hurt. Commiserate with, console and comfort those whose lives have been thrown into turmoil and trouble. The apostle Paul exhorts us to identify deeply with the emotions others experience when he writes: "Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep" (Rom 12:15).
Mike Edwards is an assistant editor at National Geographic Magazine. He recently traced the epic journey that Marco Polo took through China in the thirteenth century. Edwards was accompanied by Chinese historian Li Zhengyu. One morning as the two cruised along in their vehicle, Edwards was surprised as Professor Li began to sing a well-known Christian song: "Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so."
"I went to a missionary school for twelve years," Li explained, "and I was baptized." Li related that missionaries left after the Communists came to power in 1949, and that remaining Christians became a persecuted group. He spent several years as a peasant at hard labor before being rehabilitated and permitted to teach again. Knowing that Edwards was a Christian, Li opened up even more: "It's been a long time since I sang Christian songs aloud, but sometimes I sang them in my heart." Then he sang "Holy, Holy, Holy," and Edwards joined him in a duet.
Next, they sang "Silent Night." "It was a right good choir practice we had while cruising at sixty miles an hour. We both cried a little," Edwards admits.6
Whenever we reach out with love and compassion to touch another life, our contact makes the burden a little lighter and the pain a little more bearable. The human touch delivers encouragement to the discouraged and hope to the hopeless. By reaching out and touching someone through deed or word, we provide the extra push that person needs to carry on, rather than give up. The human touch can make the difference between life and death.
1 Richard G. Capen, Jr., Finish Strong (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), p. 156. [Context Link]
2 Bits and Pieces (Economics Press, May 17, 2001), p. 23. Leo Buscaglia, Born for Love (Thorofare, N.J.: Slack Incorporated, 1992), p. 184. [Context Link]
3 Draper's Book of Quotations for the Modern Christian World (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House Publishers, 1992), entry 10152. [Context Link]
4 Randy Travis, "My Woman," Guideposts, June 2001, p. 13ff. Mike Edwards, "Marco Polo in China, Part II," National Geographic Magazine, June 2001, p. 28 ff. [Context Link]
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