Yesterday, I had an emergency appointment with a dermatologist because the mild rash I’d been experiencing for several months had suddenly exploded and covered my entire face, neck, and shoulders with an uncomfortable, itchy, UGLY rash. I had been for treatment about a month earlier, and the rash seemed to be responding well to the medications, but the sudden worsening had happened just before my family left for two back-to-back vacations, so I’d been dealing with the discomfort of the rash for several weeks (and my family had been dealing with the discomfort of ME for several weeks). Needless to say, by the time I was sitting in the office, I was feeling pretty frustrated.
At my initial appointment, the resident and the attending physician both examined me thoroughly and agreed that they weren’t sure of the exact cause, but because the rash was on my face, they wanted to try a course of medications before resorting to taking a biopsy, which would likely leave a scar. At my first follow-up appointment, things had improved so much that we all agreed to just finish out the course of the medication. At yesterday’s appointment, the rash was defined enough that they were able to determine, without a biopsy, at least that the rash seemed to be caused by exposure to some kind of irritant or allergen, rather than by an infection. But what was the cause? The resident and I thought through some things I might have been exposed to – air freshener, cleaning chemicals, different shampoo or detergent or face wash or sunscreen, a new perfume, some kind of pollen in the air. It was actually a small benefit that the problem had begun just before we left for vacation, because there were very few things that I had been exposed to consistently over those two weeks: I had slept in my bed, in a cottage, at a hotel, and in a tent; I had eaten at home and at restaurants; I had been in three different states with completely different flora; I had been out of the sun, in the sun a little bit, and had full sun exposure; I’d spent long hours in the car, long hours in the house, and long hours in the great outdoors. It allowed us to eliminate a number of different factors. In fact, it had caused us to eliminate pretty much everything we could think of.
After this extensive discussion, the resident went to get the attending physician to review his recommendations. One of the last questions he asked was, “What bothers you most: pain, itchiness -“ I interrupted to agree wholeheartedly, “Itchiness!” He paused a moment and asked gently, “And how it looks?” I made a bit of a noncommittal face but he saw the tears well up in my eyes. I’m not vain, but it’s hard to look in the mirror for two weeks and see a moon landscape of angry red welts and pimples covering your entire face. (I’m developing a new appreciation and sympathy for teens with bad acne.) As he left the room, he squeezed my shoulder sympathetically and said, “It looks really uncomfortable. We’ll get it taken care of.”
Now, that’s a pretty small thing. A lot of doctors would say something similar – don’t worry about it, I’m sure we’ll find the problem, we’ll figure it out – but that little bit of human contact, that reassuring squeeze, reminded me that he’s on my team. He cares that I’m miserable. My pain matters to him. That simple touch told me that I was not alone in dealing with this unpleasant problem.
What did it cost him to take that extra second, to make that extra contact? Not much. He could do that for every patient all day long and only leave the office 30 seconds later than usual. How many times are we given an opportunity to add that split-second of extra reassurance, of letting people know we’re on their side, of making someone feel less alone? I read an article this morning about a woman who was coming to terms with her alcoholism, and hearing another person say the words, “Guess what? Me too,” helped her realize that she wasn’t battling in a vacuum. She didn’t have to do it all herself. She wasn’t the only one to go through it. She wasn’t alone.
And that’s what I needed to hear yesterday: I am not abandoned and alone in my fight and my frustration. There are others fighting by my side, some family, some friends, some strangers. But all helping to fight my battle, whether by active participation or merely encouragement and sympathy.
It was a little thing, but it made all the difference in the world.
I am not alone. And neither are you, whatever you may be suffering right now. Courage, friend. You are not alone. No one is alone.