The healing touch

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: (Published 23 June 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:1540
  1. Vivian Edwards, former medical officer in maternity and child health
  1. Newhaven, East Sussex

    I read with fascination the BMJ article about the “patient friendly alarm system” in the last Christmas issue (2000;321:1565-6). For me it raised a memory; one that will remain evergreen.

    Some years ago, on a wet sombre September afternoon, I responded to a persistent ringing on my front door bell. Aroused from a deep sleep, Kim, my Belgian shepherd dog, rushed to the door, his ears quivering alertly. I welcomed in a woman, whom I will call Christina. Thin, haggardly underweight, she sank speechlessly into an easy chair. A long silence followed. Eventually, in a barely audible voice, she told me that she had been recently widowed. Her husband, to whom she had been married for some 30 years, had collapsed and died while at work. Neither she nor her husband had been aware of any pre-existing health problems. Both had been eagerly planning to visit their married daughter in Australia. Silence followed. Time slowly passed as the distraught woman sank even more deeply into a world of darkness; her body stayed still while her head flopped loosely against her chest. She became oblivious to her surroundings, apparently deaf to any attempted conversation. There seemed no way for me to pierce the shell of suffering with which she had surrounded herself.

    Would she, I wondered, follow her husband in her despair? Was there a real risk of suicide? How could I possibly ease her distress?

    I turned to Kim, still snuggled by my side, gazing at him appealingly. Our eyes met. His response was swift. Rising, he silently positioned himself by Christina's unresponsive figure. Slowly he raised his forelegs to gently grasp her body, encircling her waist, and rested his head snugly on her lap, his eyes fixed on her. Slowly she lifted her head until her eyes met his. Tears trickled down her cheeks. She clasped his warm clinging body, and her lips stretched into a smile. Gently she stroked his head, and slowly her power of speech returned. Kim remained by her side, a loving presence.

    My dog and I became listeners as words flowed at last. Christina joined us both in drink and food; before she left, she gave us her telephone number. In the weeks and months that followed, Kim remained her constant source of comfort and encouragement, her healing touch. That incident was, for me, not only an evergreen memory but also a lesson for life. I learnt to use my dog to help others in distress.

    The power of healing does not lie solely in human hands.

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