Hugs, Not Rx

“Health Care” – two words that bring to mind calm and peaceful images, like “atomic blast” or “prison riot”. Few subjects seem to have such a polarizing effect on friendly conversation these days. Relax – I have absolutely no interest in weighing in on that hot-button topic. But today I was reminded of a series of health-care-related incidents of an unusual sort – incidents that, although quite simple, utterly amazed me when they occurred. This is a story about three doctors – three men who showed me that my whole view of medical practitioners was very limited, and who –perhaps unknowingly– restored my faith in mankind.

I’ve had a lot of doctors over my lifetime. Some better than others, naturally – doctors are just like any other segment of human society in that you’ll have your really good ones like Heathcliff Huxtable and your really bad ones like Hannibal Lecter. And while those are two fictional examples, there is surely no shortage of evildoing doctors in the history books. But I would imagine that those are the rarities, and that most doctors would be considered at least respectable, if not benevolent.

Some of the doctors I’ve had were flat-out brilliant, and some seemed rather out of touch with modern times and probably started practicing medicine when leeches were still considered a cure-all. Some were wise and instilled instant comfort and confidence, and some seemed young and green — the ink on the medical license probably not even dry yet. Some were very thorough and took their time with me, and some seemed to be working in an HMO medical factory where we patients were herded along like cattle for a seven-minute consultation where no eye contact was made.

Throughout my life, my experiences with doctors all had one consistent theme: I saw doctors as service providers. I never really thought about the human beings they were under the white coats. I never thought about them as regular people who just happened to have a bunch of letters after their name. I went to them when I had a problem, and I expected they would know what to do to fix it. I never really saw them in another light until two years ago.

Two years ago, when my marriage ended, I was a mess. I think anyone who goes through divorce can probably admit to having days where it seemed like the world was crashing down on them, and they were simply at their worst emotionally, mentally, and physically. I was no exception. It was the hardest period of my life, and while the emotional and mental difficulties were expected, I was unprepared for the physical effects the grief would have.

I couldn’t sleep. I was a ball of anxiety as I went through each day spinning on thoughts ranging from fears of financial devastation to forlorn heartbreak to wrathful plots of revenge. It was hard to drift into a peaceful slumber when, just as sleep was about to engulf me, I would think of a new expense to worry about, or I would invent a new scenario of “what really went on behind my back”, or I would come up with a new way of committing murder without getting caught. Sleep just doesn’t enter that kind of neighborhood.

I lost weight – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing for me, and in fact I’ll be the first to say that The Divorce Diet is just about the most effortless form of weight loss there is. [I envision an infomercial about The Divorce Diet in which I give testimony, my broad smile resembling The Joker without make-up, with a “before” photo of a heavier me superimposed in the background; I stare sort of wide-eyed and crazy into the camera, saying “It was effortless! The weight just fell off of me – it simply disappeared! Sort of like my hopes and dreams of retirement, or any sense of who I was as a man!”]

Every time I looked in the mirror, I would see this haunted visage staring back at me. I barely recognized that man (“Hey, I lost my double-chin! Thanks, Divorce Diet!”). I had dark circles under eyes that were perpetually red-rimmed, and though I looked like a wreck, I didn’t care much about that. However, my heartbeat felt irregular and I always seemed short of breath. When I started to notice my hands trembled slightly, I realized that I should probably see a doctor. Not for myself, for at the time I didn’t really care what happened to me; but for my kids, because they needed their Dad.

I made an appointment to see my General Practitioner, a man about my age who I will call Dr. Justin. I had been a patient of Dr. Justin for several years and felt comfortable with him – he embodies all of the “good” qualities that I think a doctor should have: smart, kind, thorough, friendly. I genuinely liked him, and thought he would be able to give me some advice on what to do about the lack of sleep, the shortness of breath, the shakes.

After being checked in and getting weighed and blood-pressure-checked by the nurse, I sat in the examining room in a daze. All my days were spent in a daze back then. After a quick knock, Dr. Justin came in, smiling and a handshake ready. He asked how I was and I said simply, “Okay”.

Maybe it was something in my voice, maybe it was the dark circles and red-rimmed eyes, but he evidently saw that I was not, in fact, “okay”. He frowned slightly and sat on the little wheeled stool and looked at his computer pad that has taken the place of clipboards in twenty-first century doctor’s offices.

“Wow, looks like you’ve lost some weight,” he said, looking at the nurse’s notation. “That’s great.” He looked up at me and again must have seen the dark clouds brimming there, for he then said, “So. What’s going on?” He didn’t say “What are you here for today?” or “What seems to be the problem?” or any of the standard questions. Simply, “What’s going on?” Casual and friendly, it put me at ease.

I let out a deep sigh and told him what was going on with me. He listened. He just listened and waited for me to tell what I had to tell without interrupting. When I was done, he was again simple, casual, and friendly. “Wow, I’m sorry to hear that. I know how hard it must be right now.”

He then went on to talk about what he has seen in men our age, when dealing with stress, crisis, life-changing events. He spoke from his position as a doctor treating men just like me, and I could tell he spoke the truth. His words were not meant to make me feel better, they were just meant to give me awareness, to share experience. I liked that he didn’t treat me as a victim; he just treated me as the wounded man I was. Wounded, but still a man.

We spoke for nearly forty-five minutes (which is an eternity by today’s doctor’s office-visit standards) before he even talked of treatment. He gave suggestions on what I could do to manage and cope with what the conditions of life were presenting me at the time. Eating better will help with sleep. Sleep will help with the shortness of breath and the shaky hands. Exercise will help most of all, he said, and suggested I find a new activity to try.

“Take this opportunity to re-invent yourself,” he said. “Do something you’ve always wanted to do. Try new things. You’ve got a lot of life ahead of you, and you’re healthy for the most part. Think of things that you want to do, and go do them. You’ll get through this.”

I knew our time was at an end, and there was really nothing left to say anyway. I felt tears want to well up at his last few kind words, and I held them back. Too many people had seen me cry lately, I didn’t want to add to the list in my doctor’s office. I took a deep breath, stood up, and said, “Thank you, Doctor.”

He stood as I did, and I reached to shake his hand like I always do. But instead of grasping my hand, he opened his arms and embraced me. My doctor gave me a hug.

I was so stunned by it that I barely had time to register that I was being hugged and thus hug him back before it was over. I had never been hugged by one of my “service providers” before, and I was completely surprised. I felt a lump form in my throat and I didn’t think I’d be able to talk, but as I stepped back I managed to croak another “Thanks” before picking up my paperwork and heading for the door.

“Be well,” he said as I walked away. I looked back with a nod and what felt like a genuine smile. As I checked out and took the elevator down, I marveled over that hug. So unexpected, so out of the ordinary, so appreciated.

The following week, I sat in my therapist’s office, a man I’ll call Dr. Kerry. I had been seeing him for years at this point, so he had counseled me through all the recent months of my marriage disintegrating, but this was my first time seeing him since I’d hit the “emotional bottom” of the separation process.  This was the first time I’d seen him since I learned the truth about what I now simply call “The Betrayal”.

I usually get 45 minutes in his office, and it is always a useful 45 minutes. When I leave Dr. Kerry’s office, I have something I didn’t have when I got there – some new insight or awareness that had not occurred to me before.  He knows me well, and he’s good at what he does: what he does for me is help me to see that I’m really okay.

As he ushered me in to his office and I took my standard place on the couch across from his chair, he could tell by one look at me I was not okay that day.

“What’s going on today?” he asked quietly, speaking in a soothing tone that is like the cool side of a pillow on a hot night. I started talking, then raging, then weeping, then talking some more. I was all over the place in my narration, covering the whole range of the human emotional condition. I could’ve been speaking in tongues for all I know – I only knew that I was in pain and it hurt badly. He mostly listened, and offered comments where comment was needed.

I spent a long time dumping a whole mess of emotion into his office that afternoon, until he eventually said to me –in the gentlest way possible—“We gotta stop there.” I looked at the clock and saw that a full 60 minutes had passed – something that had never happened before. I also saw that I had used up the whole box of tissues that sat on the end table by the couch. I nodded and wiped my eyes with the last tissue I held in my hands, and tossed it into the wastebasket as I stood up.

He, too, stood up at the same time, and once again, as I moved to leave his office, my doctor stepped forward and gave me a hug. I had been seeing this man for several years, but up until that moment I had only ever shook his hand. That day, he apparently saw something that Dr. Justin also saw – a deeply sad man who needed to be embraced by another human being.

I hugged him back briefly, and again managed a “Thanks” as I let go, but as I pulled away, he held me by the shoulders at arms length and looked me in the eye. He spoke clearly, directly, and with a gentle force that was meant to get past all the negative messages I fed myself. “You will be okay,” he said intently, his eyes kind and clear and certain. He half-nodded and raised his eyebrows as if to ask if I understood, continuing to lock me in his gaze. I nodded silently, then turned and headed for the door.

I felt slightly embarrassed, but tremendously grateful. I felt like I was not alone.

About a month later, I had my six-month check-up with my dentist. I’ll call him Dr. Xerxes. This man has been my dentist for nearly fifteen years, and every six months he gets an update on my life. I was nearly four months past-due for this particular check-up, so it had been almost a year since I’d last seen him – a long, dark year. I’d postponed my appointment for months because I just couldn’t get it together to go, I was so stuck in my misery. I finally got to the “Life goes on” stage of progression, and made good on my appointment.

Dr. Xerxes came breezing in to the exam room, all smiles and perfect white teeth, and said “Hey man – wow, you look great! You’ve really lost some weight!” he exclaimed.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” I said, thinking that forty pounds is more than a “guess”.

His eyes widened and he flashed those perfect teeth again, and said, “Well, you look great! How’d you do it?” I noticed that he, too, was looking much slimmer than the last time I’d seen him. “You working out?”

“Well,” I said, and suddenly remembered that my former wife was also his patient, and would likely be seeing him soon if she hadn’t already, and so I chose my words carefully. “I’m – we’re — separated right now, going through a divorce, so it just kinda happened.” I shrugged awkwardly and smiled equally so. “The weight loss, I mean. It just kinda happened.”

His smile faded from his mouth but not from his eyes – they still shone with bright awareness and knowledge. “Ahh,” he said, nodding sagely, “The Grief Diet. I know all about that,” he said, and took a step back and gestured to his body.  “I lost 25 pounds on it,” he said, confirming my suspicion that he was slimmer than I remembered. “My wife and I divorced last year.”

Suddenly the room equalized and I felt completely at ease with Dr. Xerxes, and it occurred to me that he was always good at helping me feel at ease when I’m in his chair. I guess this explains why I’ve been seeing him for fifteen years. He’s also good at what he does.

Instead of having his hygienist do my cleaning that day, he opted to do it himself – a first in all my years as his patient. He cleaned my teeth himself as he talked with me about my situation, his experience, the commonalities we shared. He commiserated with me, he supported me, he made me laugh. He invited me for drinks if I needed to talk. I was moved beyond words at this outpouring of concern and care from my dentist.

And again –perhaps not so surprisingly this time—upon check-out, he stepped toward me, thanking me for coming in, and opened his arms to embrace me, which I did, much less awkwardly than the previous two times with the previous two doctors. This time felt natural, as if it were not unheard of for professional health care providers – even male professional health care providers– to hug their patients.

Three hugs from three doctors. Simple gestures that had an extraordinary effect on me. I have not forgotten them, and my appreciation for these men increased exponentially as a result. Since then, I have discovered that men in all walks of life are not only capable of hugging another man without any sense of awkwardness, but do it regularly, intentionally, as part of who they are. Today I am happy to count myself as one of them – a man who is alive and kicking again, who does not carry the fear and pain and sadness that shuts men down and hardens their hearts.

Everyone, everywhere, at some point or other, needs to be embraced by another human being. And when a person is at his lowest point, that need becomes acute. These three doctors of various disciplines understood this, and when I was at my lowest, they seemed to know exactly what was needed. It was more useful and effective than any pill they could have prescribed. I wonder if they teach this in medical school. If not, maybe they should. 

Today, I hug everyone, warmly and genuinely, because I want to – because I have love and compassion in my heart. When I greet someone, I hug them. When I say goodbye to someone, I hug them. When I congratulate someone, I hug them. When I thank someone, I hug them. I find that I usually hug at least one human being every day – as much for myself as for them.

In terms of health care, one could call it “preventative maintenance”. Hugs are good medicine. No insurance necessary.