The palms of my hands inch forward, slow and steady, farther and farther away from my body. My eyes close, surrounded by darkness, with dissonant sounds that clatter and ring like hovering shards of fragmented glass occasionally colliding, I feel my hands quiver in space, this dimensionless zero-gravity place. I wait in this darkness, for some sort of cue, a sign, a voice that’ll tell me exactly what to do and what to feel.
Maybe a minute or so of this, and the space just beyond my hands that are stretched before me feel different — it’s charged with energy, some kinesphere crashing toward me, molecules vibrating as they bounce off the ridges in my skin. They feel warm.
And then I feel a touch. It starts on my pinky, the slightest, lightest brush, hardly palpable. It timidly presses into the outskirts of my palms, and then slowly shifts to the rest of my hand. The thumb is last. I feel a sense of warmth and humility, a sort of security in a place of loss. When his hands retract, I am left alone in the dark again.
Touch — it sounds sensual, weirdly sexy and uncomfortable at the same time, but what exactly is it? And do we have any idea how powerful “touch” is? I know I didn’t, and still don’t.
Last Wednesday, I participated in an event hosted by the Medical Arts program in the University of Michigan’s Medical School and hospital. It was a physician-dancer collaborative event, a first of its kind. My professor in the dance department invited me to demonstrate and perform at the function, surrounded by current medical practitioners and physicians in training.
When I say I am a double major in dance and neuroscience, 50 percent of reactions are a form of congratulatory amusement, and the remaining are a combination of confusion, doubt and impossibility.
“Well that don’t make no sense, does it?” my Uber driver scoffs. After the twinge of animosity fades, I usually force a laugh and say something like, “Well, there’s more overlap than you think,” and change the subject.
The problem is more widespread and disheartening than I had originally thought.
The arts and sciences are segregated in their own worlds, the practitioners siloed into their study they often forget the other’s presence, or publicly categorized as entities with no possibility for exchange and integration. The option for crossing over hardly even exists.
We are in a world where we are overstimulated by our senses and completely saturated with information that is handed to us in school and often spewed at us by society. To understand a person is to understand the world they inhabit, and the world they wish to be a part of. Trying to understand a person without their world, the context and background, seems to neglect the spokes of their wheel and the network that gives rise to the machine of miscellaneous nuts and bolts that makes up who she is.
On Tuesday, I stood in a room full of medical practitioners. We did some collaborative movement exercises to tune in our senses and see the room from a new angle, a wider aperture, to understand a person from a non-traditional perspective.
We played with space — how do we enter a room, exit a room, move within a confined place? These are simple ideas that seem tedious and maybe not worth exploring, but confronting a patient is as much of an improvisation game as dance.
No, there is no music or spotlight, chandeliers or dramatic fog, but there is an audience and a performer.
I remember waking up from my ACL reconstruction surgery in the post-op room of the hospital. I can still feel the light hand that woke me up from my anesthetic daze. Despite the drugs that were circulating in my veins, I remember the flush of panic that nearly made me puke on the bedside table — did the surgery go well? What if it didn’t, what if I can’t walk anymore, what if they had to amputate my leg? I couldn’t begin to fathom the horror and grief.
I remember watching intensely, scrutinizing eyes following the doctor as he lifted his hand from my shoulder and walked around the table, noticing the distance between him and the bed rails, his posture and gait, the subtle nod that gestures the nurse to walk this way, the tightness of his jaw, and the loose fists at his sides that brush the pockets of his white coat. He lifts up the sheets and I shut my eyes, because all I feel is fear.
My legs are still numb, my body is foreign and I am occupying a temporary container with my sloshy thoughts and medicated blood. It doesn’t matter that I’m sitting in a bed with carefully calculated and concentrated fluid bags hanging at my sides, or that the crash cart is around the corner, and defibrillators are ready to percuss, or that the abundance of surgeons here guarantees me life, even if I fall unconscious this instant.
I feel his hand on my foot.
It’s gentle and humble, the way my grandpa used to pat my knobby knees. When I slowly blink my eyes open, his eyes are at my level, I wonder if he’s squatting at the foot of the bed, and then realize he is sitting on a short stool to match my eye level. There’s a smiley face Sharpied on the big toe of my left foot, a little crooked so it looks smirky, and the doctor reassures me the operation was successful. I nod and muscle a smile on my heavy cheeks and let the darkness take me away again into the expansiveness of it all. His movements speak as loud, if not louder than the words of comfort that escape his mouth.
Maybe I am just a keen observer because of 18 years of analyzing body positions and their associated meanings. But just like every novel and poem has an intended audience, why wouldn’t every physician? It’s not that the motions and gestures of pre- and post-operative care need to be choreographed or calculated to perfection — but that they can carry an enhanced consciousness and body awareness.
As patient-centered care becomes a central focus of the medical school curriculum and professionals are trained to be cognizant and empathetic in more complex ways, there is a necessity for spatial, tactile and body mindfulness that is both artful and rigorous.
When I stood across from a current med student and we played this simple hand game for heightened sensitivity, I was moved by the dedication and curiosity he rendered.
I could feel my silos overlapping like two waves crashing into each other, standing at the confluence where these two rivers cross. I was stunned by the possibility that maybe, just maybe, 18 years of cultivating creativity gave me something to offer to him.
Maybe I could show him my safe space, the dance studio — even if it is the outpatient ward of a hospital — a playground for adults, where every day, we create new movement, explore the inner workings of our bodies, and learn to use spontaneity as our shovel and pail. And this, the possibility of influencing patient care with a different type of conscientiousness, is the answer I want to give the Uber driver, the reason for my seemingly antithetical pursuits.
But also, beyond the exercises and dialogues of how this specific form of art and science intertwine, I believe there is a fundamental understanding of empathy and lack of judgement that comes with the practice of music, dance, theatre, visual art and even literature.
There is immense bravery in delving into your imagination and then presenting it for display. There is dedication in the time and years of repetition that it takes to foster creativity and curiosity. Like flexibility, these are things that need to be practiced and reinforced to be as malleable and infinite as they were when we were young. There is fear in speaking your ideas and exposing yourself to vulnerability and criticism, and then incredible humility in learning to accept the arrows and fingers that are pointed directly your way.
These are not to discount the decades of training and learning that go into the life of a physician. There is a part of me that is more afraid of the things that lie ahead of this crossroad, the challenges and battles I do not yet even know exist. But needless to say, there are inherent values in the arts and sciences that are worth taking the time to share and explore.
And maybe this is the next step we take, as aspiring health care professionals, entrepreneurs and collaborators, artists and learners, to better understand the people around us and our individual purpose in this changing world. Maybe this is how we get a little closer to understanding our existence and the short time we have to make a difference.