When I am in any kind of pain, I want people around me to look me in the eye.
Here's what got me thinking about eye contact: a couple of weeks ago, I was sitting in a dermatology clinic chatting with the resident and a young medical student. It was all very jolly until the doctor walked in carrying what looked like a cocktail spritzer bottle with a trigger handle. He said, "I'm going to spray liquid from this bottle directly on to two sun spots on your face. It's going to really hurt." "It is?" I asked weakly, looking at my new friend the resident. He looked away and so did the med student. I was on my own to deal with this painful procedure. As it turned out, the stinging was significant, but not terrible. And it's all healed nicely now.
Eye contact is a powerful kind of hand holding. Sick people need it, people in pain need it and so do caregivers. Eye gaze says, "I am with you. You don't need to experience this alone. What happens to you happens to me, too."
As I reflected on my little episode in the dermatology clinic, I remembered something I wrote in my book about when I had been unable to look my own son Nicholas in the eye when he was in his greatest hour of need. Nick was 2 years old and had been diagnosed with severe GERD, or gastro-esophageal reflux. We were advised that an operation to stop the reflux was necessary, but what we didn't know was how invasive it would be. Similar to an open-heart procedure, Nick's tiny body couldn't manage the assault. When he woke up from the operation, his cerebral palsy caused him to be in terrible spasm and pain. This is what I remember:
While Nicholas was in surgery, Jim and I passed the
hours in the surgical waiting room. Time
dragged on and finally, we decided to wait near Nick’s bed on the ward. Another hour passed and I asked the nurse in
charge if she could find out when Nicholas would be back with us. It was dusk now and she said that Nicholas
was in recovery, but was “breath holding” so they were keeping him a little
longer to monitor the situation. Twenty
minutes later, a nurse and an orderly appeared down the hall wheeling a cot
towards us. Inside was Nick, his mouth
open and rigid, eyes wide with panic. He
gasped, writhing, and exhaled a hoarse cry.
He was in the room now, and we hovered like birds flapping
uselessly. That night was the first, but
not the last time that I saw in my son’s eyes a terrible pleading. I turned away and put my hand down on the
corner chair to support myself from falling.
Jim warned “Donna, you can’t do this.
Come here!” I came back to
Nicholas, murmuring apologies through tears.
There would be other times in Nicholas' life when his eyes would be windows on his panic and pain, but I would never look away again.
Caregivers look at their charge all the time... scanning for signs of decline, bed sores, fevers, or for changes in breathing and function. We are expert observers. But we need friends and family to look at us, too. Caring and giving are words that tell us why - all of our energy is going out, to a person in need- often someone we love. I often say that we cannot do this caring and giving alone. We need companions in our loving work. And one powerful way to be a friend of a caregiver to look them in the eye.