Touching me, touching you.

Opinion by Robin Youngson.

Of all the stories I ever heard from a patient, one haunts me the most. Rarely have I seen a patient so profoundly affect an audience of health professionals.

 Stuart Diver, a young ski instructor, was the only survivor of the landslide that tore through the Thredbo ski resort and claimed eighteen lives in the dark and cold. Stuart was trapped under tons of concrete and rubble, helpless to defend himself against the merciless tides of freezing water that drowned his wife Sally, trapped at his side. Stuart was utterly alone for three nights and two days, entombed in wet concrete and ice, far from help.

On the third day, rescuers lowered listening equipment into the rubble and heard a voice. Paramedic Paul Featherstone crawled down into the rubble and was just able to reach Stuart’s hand. For eleven hours he held Stuart’s hand and spoke with him, remaining in position even when the rubble shifted dangerously.

 The whole audience wept with Stuart as he told the story of his wife’s death, then being alone for so long. It was hard to imagine that anyone could survive such an ordeal but Stuart let us know that he owed his life to the paramedic who simply gave him hope and comfort for so many hours.

 As the last slab of concrete was lifted clear, Stuart’s frozen body was lifted out of the wreckage amid the jubilant cries of the rescuers. He was rushed by helicopter to the nearest hospital where the trauma team swiftly began their resuscitation and treatment – so many skilled hands doing so many tasks all at once.

 This last experience for Stuart was deeply traumatising. For the previous eleven hours another human being had held his hand and given him comfort and hope. In the frantic busyness of resuscitation, that human contact was abruptly withdrawn and Stuart lost all hope. Choking back the tears, Stuart told the stunned audience that the experience of resuscitation in the hospital was worse than his wife dying and worse than being entombed. Few could ever calibrate human suffering with such poignancy.

 For our patients, illness and injury often hit like a landslide. They find themselves trapped and alone. Our caring touch might be the only thing that gives hope and comfort. When we touch our patients, they touch us in turn. These precious moments let us know we are not alone in our fear and suffering, either as patients or professionals.

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