On Hand-Holding as a Lifeline


When you work with patients who are as compromised as some of mine, it is impossible not to reflect on their progress on a regular basis. The individuals who are doing well require little additional thought; but those who are floundering must get additional attention. For my long professional career, I have been repeatedly warned not to take my work home with me.

But I can’t help it, I do, as do my colleagues. More correctly, I choose to allow myself to ponder and ruminate upon the information given me by my patients who are not doing so well with hope that clarity will come with additional contemplation.

Our work is challenging and difficult. It requires precise identification of the patient’s most immediate medical imbalances which require our attention with an eye towards removing, layer by layer, these imbalances as we work towards health. Given the limitations of medical science and our skills, we cannot always be as accurate as we like. This creates a virtual trial-and-error process in which we must constantly re-evaluate our strategies and be willing to go back to the drawing board at every single visit. The word that comes to mind to describe the quality necessary to achieve success in this difficult endeavor is steadfast. We are in for the long haul. This is a complicated journey, and we need to be there throughout.

There will be good times, and there will be down times. When your Bartonella and Babesia flare up, the world will shift on its axis. When the chemically sensitive casually walk down the street and meet a scent-laden passer-by and react instantaneously, it takes a heroic act to just get back home. When the Herxes just keep coming, it takes a strong spirit to just get through it.

Sometimes, as I reflect on the progress, or lack of it for some of my patients, of whom I have grown very fond over the years, I cannot help but wonder what I am truly doing for them. At any moment in time, I may not be able to see their improvement, which causes both my patient and me to

question everything we are doing. But if we can take a step back, even during momentary setbacks, we can clearly see that we have, indeed made progress, and we need to keep going.

I have come to realize that perhaps the most essential role I play is that of a coach: Every visit is a pep talk. Every contact is an opportunity to remind ourselves of the need to stay positive. When we seem to be treading water, what allows us to move forward is that at those times I have to be

the inspiration for both of us. I must dig into my own spiritual resources and find the spark that keeps hope alive and find a way to transfer that spark at our visit. Healing progress is possible at any moment in time, and we need to be reminded constantly that a life of comfort and well-being may be just around the corner. As I observe our interactions at each visit, I notice that this is an essential component of what I do.

This is the art of hand-holding. It is essential to healing. If I provide the lifeline and the vision of what is possible and if we keep at it, steadfastly,

we can create the picture of health we so much desire.

Several years ago, when I wrote “On Hope and Healing”, I closed the book with a short chapter entitled The Most Valuable Thing I’ve Ever Done,

which I think captures, with simplicity, what I am trying to convey:


The Most Valuable Thing I’ve Ever Done

When it comes to the emotional and spiritual components of healing, words often cannot adequately communicate what we are feeling.

I’d like to complete this manuscript with a story from my early experiences in medical practice. Even now, years later, I look back on this moment as perhaps my finest “work,” although in reality, I cannot know how this event was perceived by others. I just know how I felt, and hopefully, that is sufficient.

In the fall of 1985, while working in private practice in Duluth, Minnesota, I was asked by my colleagues in another clinic to cover for them for just a few hours while they held their annual Labor Day picnic for their clinic staff and families. I readily agreed to provide coverage but was surprised when a local emergency room called me but a few minutes after they’d signed out to me. An elderly gentleman, a longtime patient of one of my colleagues, had just presented to the emergency room in severe cardiac failure, and they were admitting him to the hospital. I immediately ran over to the hospital, where cardiologists had taken over the intensive care procedures and were trying to revive him and save his life. Unfortunately, his heart attack had been a massive one, and after a valiant attempt at resuscitation, this gentleman died.

His wife was sitting anxiously in the waiting area of the intensive care unit, her hands clasped together, a look of great distress upon her face. I was uncertain how to approach her; after all, I didn’t know her husband, and during his intense resuscitation, we never even had the chance to exchange a few words. How could I comfort her? She did not know me, and I could not honestly provide even a few platitudes about her husband, whom I had not known. I was lost for words. I had no idea what to do. I only knew that she was dreadfully upset and needed comforting.

So I sat down next to her, explained who I was, how I came to be there, and what had happened to her husband. Not knowing what else to do, I took her hand and held it for a moment. There was nothing more to say. She seemed reluctant for me to pull my hand away, so I just sat with her, holding her hand. Time passed, and when I finally patted her hand and stood up to say goodbye, I was astonished that two hours had passed.

Although I had, to all intents and purposes, done almost nothing during these hours, I left the hospital feeling that I had truly been of service that day. I still feel that this may have been the most valuable thing I’ve ever done in my thirty eight years of medical practice.

Sometimes we get caught up in the details of medical practice, and we get wrapped up in all of the technology and the chemistry and the multi-syllabic words and difficult-to-pronounce names. And sometimes, life reminds us that we are, essentially, only human, and that it is our caring for others that is our finest gift.