Sunday, January 20, 2008

Importance of Touch

When Words Fail (or Can't Be Used)

Difficulty in communicating was something I anticipated when conducting this project abroad. However, the degree is amplified when you spend the majority of your day in an AIDS hospice infirmary. "How do you feel?" and "Is there anything I can do to help?" are things I can only wish to say to the person lying in the bed. Instead it is a smile and a bow. When I do try to speak, the best Thai that comes out is hello, my name is Ma-Ko (the R sound is difficult for Thais) and I am a writer from America. Honestly, who cares about any of that. I had to think of other ways to say I am here or you are not alone because these options were just not enough.

Then the massages started. I signed on to do "physical therapy", which is really nothing more than a gentle massage with an Icy-Hot style cream. I was certainly nervous to say the least, and the sweat that accumulated in my gloves was an easy indicator. Me, nervous? A person that knows the way HIV spreads! I was almost ashamed at myself. After the first person the trepidation subsides and the pure observations begin. The majority of the patients are covered in small scares - old lesions and new, the legs and arms are spotted like a leopard. I soon realize that I am in for quite the day as every time I finish there is a new person that wants a massage. It must be for the attention or the touch of someone besides to take their blood pressure or change their diaper. Surely I am not the world's best masseur, especially in a country renowned for its massages.

I have been told that the hospital ward is a mixture of very seriously ill patients but also moderate and mild cases as well. They are not separated but it is usually pretty obvious by their weight and skin. Some are skin and bones. You massage expecting to feel a muscle and yet your fingertips are greeted by flappy wrinkly skin and a hard bone. The skin is very dry and pieces of hair fall out during the massage. I would think that I was hurting or boring them if it were not for the smile or some indication that they want me to continue. However, when tour groups come into the hospital, about three do a day, you feel utterly connected to the person. The pictures and videos are taken and you try to ignore them by continuing with the "physical therapy", but usually I am overwhelmed by putting myself in the patient's shoes. Some talk to the visitors, many of which bring small gifts or cash handouts, and others simply stare off or do not pay any attention. They never turn down a photo, but then again many are never given the chance. When not asked I try to squeeze a little harder or rush to a new spot attempting my best to grab the patient's attention because no one wants to be treated like a side show or exhibit.

A massage is certainly not an answer to any of these people's problems, and I know that there is very limited, if any at all, medical benefit coming from massaging legs and feet. I can not hold a conversation to talk about things that interest them or even get to know them. They remain a person, a fellow person and I can try my best to show they are not alone. I finish a massage and, like always, their hands go up in a praying manner to their forehead and they say thank you. So many words build up inside me waiting to flow out but the only thing I can say is "Thank you" with a smile and a bow.


pablo said...

the pictures you have taken are amazing and the commentary is very insightful. keep praticing what you preach and you will be the change in the world you wish to see.

Fr. D. said...

Great chatting with you on-line last night. Your generosity and courage overwhelm me. I read your blog about "touch" to the students at the 9:30 Mass last night. What am impact you have made. I am so proud just to know you. You are an inspiration. Fr. D.

Robin said...

You are doing amazing work! I was particularly warmed by you entry about touch. I just want to encourage you not to devalue the medical benefit provided by a massage or just having your company. You may not be helping to heal a biological body, but you are comforting the soul; that energy within each of us that gives strength to the body. Your ability to express empathy is ever inspiring! Keep up the good work.

m.a. said...

Marco...If we are on this earth to develop compassion, as I believe we are, and to help others to do so, too, your work resonates enlightenment.

I remember an acting professor of mine describing a trip to Anne Frank's hiding apartment. He said, "Being there was more theatre than theatre."
Your travels brought his statement to mind. In the presence of such sufferering, you, Marco, are a participant in sacred ritual where everything is stripped to its truest nature. You are seeing God's truth, as most of never can, couched as we are in the comfort of our lives.
You are living a heightened life now, more theatre than theatre. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Much Love and good thoughts to you...Mary Ann