Can the Presence of Family and Friends Help You Heal?

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"We all prayed. Not in an organized way, or even in a traditional way, but each of us in his or her own way. It was on my 'watch,' late at night when I felt the 7-year-old squeeze my hand while I was reading to him. Just once. By that time, weeks into his stay in the ICU, discussions were beginning about discontinuing support, brain death, etc. I told everyone on rounds the next morning about the hand squeeze. Most of my colleagues and supervisors attributed it to involuntary muscle spasms.

"But then someone else felt it that morning, and then again that afternoon, now in response to 'command.' It was several more days before he opened his eyes, and a few hours after that before he smiled, still with an endotracheal tube in place. When he walked out of the hospital more than 2 months after the near-drowning, and his heroic rescue of his brother, we all cheered and cried. We had cried many times in the weeks preceding, and I still cry whenever I tell this story."

• Jay Wolfson, Director, Suncoast Center for Patient Safety, Evaluation and Research, University of South Florida: "When I served as the special guardian for [Terri] Schiavo, I spent a great deal of time with Michael, her husband, and Mary and Bob, her parents, and had each of them with me often when I spent hours with Ms. Schiavo. Both sides firmly believed that their presence with her made a profound difference in her state."

• Dan Blumenthal, Chair of the Department of Public Health at Morehouse School of Medicine: "My wife once told me that if she were ever in a coma in the hospital, I should stand at her bedside and talk to her, because she thought the sound of my voice would reach her and help her recover.

"As it happened, a couple of years later she was in a coma in the hospital, and I did stand at her bedside and talk to her. When I ran out of things to talk about, I read poetry to her. This went on for hours every day. It didn't help. She died anyhow. So I guess I'm not a believer in the loved-ones-at-the-bedside theory ... but a [sample size] of 1 isn't science."

• Derek Raghavan Oncologist, Cleveland Clinic: "I have a classic tale of Andrew, a Scot living in Sydney, with no family at all, and no friends...was dying of lung cancer, and pain management was a huge issue...on evening rounds, when I was still only a fellow, I sat on his bed, and asked about what terrified him the most....he responded that it was his fear of being buried with nobody to 'send him off' -- I responded by telling him that my chief nurse, my resident and I would form his funeral party -- he had an almost instant turn-around, leading to a much more comfortable and peaceful death, and we did, as promised, hire a vehicle, follow the hearse, and participated in his burial....gratifying for him and surprisingly gratifying for each of us as we still occasionally speak of it (and him) 25 years later."

• Lillie D. Shockney, R.N. Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine: "The last sense we lose before dying is our sense of hearing. Many patients have told me that they could hear their mother, spouse, sister telling them to keeping fighting and to hold on and that it did inspire them to fight the fight needed to recover. They couldn't open their eyes or communicate to the family member but was thankful for their presence and expressions of love."

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