On Touching Naked Bodies (In the Clinic)
January 6, 2016
by Bahar Orang
I have touched bare breasts and naked chests rather infrequently throughout my life, but each encounter was poignant, careful, and intimate—as a baby seeking nourishment from my mother’s breast, as a child when my brother and I were enraptured by the sound and feel of heartbeat and took turns pressing palm against chest, and later in life while wrapped in a lover’s embrace. I’ve only touched bodies that to me were beloved, and I’ve only ever done so in a home, in a bed, in a warm, safe place. I remember: sounds of playful laughter and tender words, scents of people whom I love and loved, and the feel of familiar skin, soft and sweet. And sometimes there was heartbeat; I’d hear it or feel it in stillness, in quiet—unforeseen and somehow sacred.
But now, as a medical student, I’m expected to touch many a strange, naked breast. I’m expected to find and listen to hearts; I should know how to translate and respond to their funny, beating language. The first patient I met and touched was an older woman with congestive heart failure. She was an English teacher who was keen to talk to us. She inquired about our schooling, asked about our pasts and families, but also teased us for how young we still looked despite our dress shirts and stethoscopes. We were to listen to her “heart sounds.” I admit that I was less interested in the sound of faulty heart valves and more attuned to her other heart sounds—was there anything in particular that she, an English teacher, read to pass the time in bed, any special book or poem? Though this, of course, was not within the scope of our limited objective, and our medical resident sped through the small talk and asked her to remove her gown.
She looked at him, then looked at us, and sighed softly before lifting the garment above her head. The sick, dying woman now lay before us in the nude and we carried on, unflinching and professional. When it was my turn to auscultate her heart (oh but what of her spirit! What of her other insides—why not auscultate the parts that made her cry or laugh or feel loneliness or fear! No time, no time…), I came close to her, leaning over the bed but avoiding her gaze in false concentration (how could I meet her eyes—she, utterly exposed, and me, fully clothed and undeserving…), and traced her clavicle with two fingers. I worked my way down, counting her ribs, shifting her breast, and locating the desired “intercostal space” (I too was intercostal as ever! I had departed from that island of regular human touch, and was now approaching some other coast, some other place…). I pressed my stethoscope against her chest, and found her heartbeat. Then, finally, with the loud and heavy music of her heart filling my ears, I looked up into her eyes. She smiled just a bit, and I was suddenly overcome with such sadness. Where was I? What was this awkward, un-poetic, broken interaction? Why was it such a struggle for me to attend to this women’s incredible vulnerability—to relate to her gorgeous, unfaltering generosity? Why was I so weak?
I have always been devoted to the nude. Whether writing or reading or drawing or feeling—the naked human body is at the centre of my thoughts and projects. My little apartment is filled with the bodies of Klimt and Schiele, with the faces of Frida, the noses of Modigliani. My notebooks are thick with poems where limbs and skin and inside parts are recurrent metaphors. My academic essays were often about female bodies and how they are constructed and seen and consumed and sometimes radically and powerfully transformed. I have grown up in a culture where dancing and kissing and hugging are sustenance; I have grown up with friends who’ve become tattoo artists and fashion designers and sculptors and burlesque performers—in their work, the body, in all its movement and beauty, is the canvas. And now, I wish to be a doctor, where I too will work in the physical, emotional, and spiritual depths and throes of the body.
Herein arises a most vital question: how can I recognize nudity in all its nuanced forms? How can I, in a single sweeping glance, in a brief auscultation, in a few clinical touches—negotiate, gracefully and graciously, the beauty, vulnerability, and normalcy of the body? How can I be both moved and unmoved by nudity—both compassionately aware of the patient’s openness but also not distracted and overcome by it? How can I recognize the subjectivity of the naked figure, while also tending to its many, objectifiable parts?
When I encounter nude bodies—whether in the clinic, the bedroom, or the art studio—I think, too, of June Jordan and how she wrote:
reaching for you
whoever you are
are you ready?
I am a stranger
learning to worship the strangers
whoever you are
whoever I may become.
As doctors and medical students, we reach—with stifled longing—for a human body that most often reaches back, despite fear and fragility. We connect, sometimes, open palm against naked skin, eyes meeting eyes, lines blurred, healing and suffering continuous between persons. Writers and artists reach for strangers too—their craft as technical as medicine, focused and fervent, and their desires and longings as potent and silly and tragic as me fumbling with naked breast in a hot, loud clinic.
I am learning to worship strangers, and I want, so badly, the space—the moment—to seek multiple truths, like an artist or a writer—the truth of diagnosis, the truth of personhood. I want to seek out clinical truths with a steady hand and observant eye. But I also want to listen for spiritual truths and emotional truths; I want to expose my heart and be vulnerable enough to feel for and with patients.
We should talk more in medicine about that which is sensual: healing, in its entirety, is sensual. When I am dizzy and nauseous, my mother gives me a tea with nabat. That sweet, warm drink touches my lips, falls through my body, and it is so soothing and so sensual in its gentleness, its humility, and how it reminds me so poignantly of my mother and her traditional healing tricks. I had a dear friend whose arms and wrists were permanently damaged from years of playing piano, and I would spend many a night running my nails up and down that skin. My attentive touch, my steady motions—all of it was sensual. I once knew a therapist who said that she dealt with her anxiety by repeating Mary Oliver’s poetry to herself over and over—
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
She recited the words until her heartbeat slowed and her breath was even. And what is more sensual than absorbing poetry so deeply that it circulates through the body like blood—rich and essential?
If friends, mothers, and faraway writers can all evoke a sensuality that attends to our suffering bodies and aching spirits—why can’t we engage an ethical, therapeutic sensuality in the clinic? Why can’t I, during my palpation of the chest and auscultation of the heart, embrace the sensuality of the relationship, draw strength from it, and recognize its power for genuine healing?
I will touch many more bare breasts and naked chests in the days and years to come. I hope that I can open myself to the open self before me and reach for you, whoever you are, whoever I may become.
Illustration of breasts from Wikimedia.