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I was visiting my parents’ house and my sister was complaining of some unusual activity in her swollen, pregnant belly. My dad got up and walked to the sofa. He laid his hands on her belly and began to feel it, to probe it.
In that action of laying his hands on her belly he had transformed from a father into his alter ego: the doctor. There was something so unfatherly and so doctorly in the way he probed the swollen belly. Not too much contact, a functional amount of contact; nothing overstepping the mark. So discrete. Distance, boundaries, a code of ethics.
A doctor on the radio described walking through a hospital at the height of the AIDS crisis, surrounded by dying people. He went to check on a patient who was nearing death. As the doctor approached, the patient caught his eye and lifted up his top to reveal his chest. The doctor laid his hands on the patient’s chest.
Decades after the event, the doctor described how this revealed to him the importance of ritual in medicine. He didn’t need to touch the patient’s chest, just needed to tell the patient – with his touch – that he was not alone.