During a particularly challenging shift, nearly every patient I supported spoke Spanish as their first language, and very limited English. I speak some Spanish, but I’m nowhere near fluent in the language, which made verbal communication a little bit spotty. Even though every one of them was patient with me as I fumbled through conversations, and forgiving when I simply couldn’t find the words I wanted to say, I began to feel like I wasn’t giving them the quality of support that they deserved. I couldn’t tell them that they were strong, that they were brave, and that they would get through this. The best I could do was small talk.
I also relied heavily on touch; rubbing shoulders, holding hands and stroking hair. Even though these are things I almost always do when supporting a patient, somehow being in this language limbo of sorts made me feel like everything else I was doing was less than adequate.
As the end of the day approached, the last patient I was to support spoke only Hindi. As it happens, this patient was having a particularly difficult time. Without much time to think about what I was going to do to make her feel comfortable and supported, she began trying to communicate her feelings to me. After some time and effort, I understood that she was afraid of feeling pain during the procedure. I understood that she felt conflicted about coming to the decision of having an abortion; that even though she was set on having the procedure, part of her felt as though she was losing her baby.
Even though a doctor came by to help her understand that she would be anesthetized during the procedure and would not feel any pain (she was there for a second trimester abortion) her fear did not subside. For the majority of our time together, she squeezed my hand and looked to me for a reassuring nod or smile as I gently massaged her shoulders.
Although these same measures of comfort had seemed insignificant to me earlier that day, they did not seem insignificant now.
Her fear and anxiety seemed to grow more potent as she lay on the operating table, waiting for the procedure to begin. At this point our eye contact was constant, and our hands were tightly clasped together. I made my expression calm and knowing, trying to convey to her that she would be all right and that I was there for her. She was looking at me with such focus, and I know that she understood my meaning.
When it came time to say goodbye, she wrapped me up in a tight embrace and once again focused on my face. Her expression read relief. I left her feeling as though I had made a difference in her experience. I felt like I had helped. I also left her with a different perspective on my own experience with the patients who had preceded her. Not only had I underestimated the potential of touch in doula work, I had discounted the power of my presence as a doula alone. I was reminded that even though I hadn’t been able to say all I wanted to say to the patients I supported that day, I had been there and that is not insignificant.