A Simple Gift of Touch
As a young child, I remember sitting for long hours at the beach digging endlessly in the
sand, hoping that if I dug far enough, I'd reach the other side of the world, specifically China. My dreams became an unexpected reality when I jumped at the opportunity to join Dr. Polly Kloster on a Summer Study Abroad trip offered to senior nursing students. During this abroad program entitled, "Integrating Spirituality and Health in China," seven students and I completed our Community Health Nursing course while we traveled. I am confident that the personal experience I took away from our journey is much more life-changing than any education that I have received out of a textbook or in a classroom. Our journey lasted a mere month, but the lessons that I took away from our experiences are going to last me the rest of my life.
Over the course of our travels, we stayed in five cities in China, visiting a nursing school
and a hospital in each. We had the opportunity to talk with Chinese nursing students regarding their opinions about health care, ideas concerning community health, and how they felt about their soon-to-be role as nurses in their country in comparison to our views on the same topics. We discovered early on in our conversations that we had different opinions about the health issues that we perceived to be significantly affecting our separate countries. However, what troubled me the most was the reason that most nursing students in China gave for choosing the nursing profession. One of the most profound differences that we discovered was the fact that in China, the nurses didn't choose to be nurses; rather, they were nurses because they didn't score high enough on a standardized exam to become what they truly aspired to be. Hearing firsthand the lack of passion that would accompany this country's future nurses with their lifetime dedication to the care and compassion of others was devastating to me. We learned a lot about the Chinese culture through brief conversations with these students as we each tried to teach one another everything we knew about health promotion and the role of the nurse in our respective countries. These discussions opened our eyes to how differently our countries viewed health in general, how different emphases are placed on how health is managed and treated, and how health issues rank in importance over others. Although these discussions were imperative to our understanding of the culture's views regarding health, the experience that will stick with me forever was one that occurred without words. In Zhuhai, the second city we visited, we had the privilege of staying on campus at the United International College (UIC), which is the first full-scale cooperation in higher education between Mainland China and Hong Kong. Their education is a lot like ours at Concordia and is also a liberal arts school that places great emphasis on community involvement and service. The students at UIC commonly go on their own time to perform acts of service all around their communities, whether it is volunteering on campus, helping in elementary schools, or going to elderly communities to spend time with residents. Our Concordia group had the chance to go along with one of these outreach programs to spend a day at an elderly home near Zhuhai. Initially going into this experience, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. In the back of my mind I had envisioned a nursing home like we'e used to in the United States. Never in a million years was I prepared for what we were going to see.
Our bus arrived outside the gate of the elderly home and I initially thought that we were at the wrong place. This "elderly home" was nothing like I had expected. Instead of what I thought was going to be a facility where elderly people had caretakers who looked after their every need, we arrived at what I can best describe as an abandonment compound. Each resident had their own room, which was comprised of a bed with a wooden board and sheet, a hole in the ground that was used as a toilet, and all of their personal belongings packed alongside the walls. There was no running water in the rooms, nor did they have doors. These elderly people who had no family to take care of them were essentially put into what I would describe as cement boxes to live the remainder of their lives almost in seclusion. Some residents came from deep within the countryside of China, and it was rare that they found someone else that spoke their dialect, making verbal communication with anybody nearly impossible. As we were walking around, I was expecting to see somebody who worked at this home taking care of the residents. We later found out there was a man who worked at the compound, but he was not in charge of taking care of the elderly residents. The residents were responsible for their own meals, their own laundry, and their own hygiene. Some were crippled, others were blind, and many had other ailments that denied them the ability to care for themselves. It brought tears to my eyes thinking about these poor people who had been brought to this "elderly home" and essentially abandoned. I kept thinking about my own grandparents and how absolutely terrible it would be to put them in the same position. However, I had learned that, because of the immense number of people in China, there just aren't enough young people and/or facilities to care for all of their elders. China's one-child policy, which was put into effect in 1979 to reduce China's population, doesn't help with this growing problem. With some exceptions for rural families and ethnic minorities, each family in China is only allowed to have one child. Consequences of this policy essentially leave the burden of care for four parents on their only child and often the responsibility of caring for grandparents as well. All too common, these responsibilities get to be too burdensome for the children. So Chinese elders are placed in elderly homes because they have nowhere else to go. After trying to put the despair and sadness that I was feeling for the people living in the home behind me, I found myself sitting next to a woman whose face I will never forget. I was very worried that because I couldn't speak the same language as the woman sitting next to me, we would sit and awkwardly stare at each other, accomplishing nothing. However, I quickly learned that a compassionate touch is just as comforting as any words I could have mustered up. We had three students with us from UIC that interpreted between the Chinese elders who spoke Cantonese, and our group, who was crippled with only the ability to speak English, without anyone nearby to help us interpret. I felt bad that I couldn't offer the woman next to me any conversation. To try and show her that I cared, I simply reached over, held her hand, and smiled at her. I quickly learned that was all she needed. She immediately broke down into tears, so I just sat with her in my embrace.
When I finally got the attention of one of the UIC students who could help interpret, he
came over and asked the woman what was wrong. She tearfully told him that I was the first
person to hold her hand and hug her in 28 years! That statement coupled with tears rolling down her frail face absolutely broke my heart. We ended up sitting together for a few more moments just crying together and I made sure not to let go of her hand. I wanted to give her as much love as I could in the small time that we had together, trying effortlessly to make up for the lack of any caring touch she had missed over the last 28 years of her life. I could have never imagined that simply holding somebody's hand could be so important.
Through that experience, I realized that the simple things in life are what mean the most. Something that I thought was so small, like a simple hug or the touch of a hand, was so incredibly meaningful to that elderly woman whose life I touched that day. I will never forget the face of that woman, whose name I never knew. I pray for this woman and all of the other residents of that elderly home every day, in the hopes that someone else will go and hold their frail hands, give them loving hugs, and just spend time smiling with them. One of the most important lessons that I learned from this global service experience is that a loving touch and a smile can break through all language barriers. I am choosing to live the rest of my life with that thought in the forefront of my mind. I have come to know that simply smiling at others and granting them your undivided loving embrace can brighten their entire day, or possibly the last 28 years of their life.