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A kiss for health

Empathy has medical value. (Painting: "The Foster Sisters" by Phillip Richard Morris, 1833-1902)

Like mothers everywhere, when my children hurt themselves I would kiss their injuries. One of my sons became so affixed to this routine that he panicked if the kiss wasn't distributed immediately.

He'd tear into a room, tears flowing, elbow up and out, pointing at an abrasion yelling "Hurt! Hurt!" I would dutifully kiss the injury. The boy would stop crying immediately and take a jagged breath. Judging by the response, that kiss actually did heal the injury.

How long has the maternal instinct been to kiss boo-boos? We now know that there are more germs around our mouths than at most injury sites. A kiss could be a dangerous addition to a wound.

However, mothers know that emotional well being can affect physical well-being. A kiss is one of the best boosters to emotional well being.

Science is beginning to pay attention.

According to 2014 analysis of studies in the online journal PLOS One, acts of empathy actually DO help patients heal faster. In the studies doctors were assigned to either provide normal care or to provide more empathetic and patient-focused care. This could include simple acts like introducing themselves or sitting down with the patient and explaining things in an understanding manner. The results show that a positive doctor-patient relationship statistically improve a patient's health outcome with diseases like obesity, diabetes, hypertension, asthma, pulmonary infections, and osteoarthritis pain.

Common sense would tell us that of course one would heal faster if one's doctor has a kind bedside manner. Science hasn't always backed this up, though. Because empathy, the psychological identification with another, was believed to be a characteristic one either had or didn't, empathy historically hasn't been a principal topic in medical training.

Empathy training, however, is now becoming an industry because there is monetary value associated with balanced empathy. Experts have learned ways to teach non-empathetic people to be more empathetic and overly empathetic people to balance so they don't overextend themselves.

I was thinking about the power of the kiss because my 85-year-old father is hospitalized with influenza. Above the closed door of his room, there is an alarming sign about the risks of influenza. Everyone entering his room dons a face mask.

We dutifully donned ours, too, but somehow during the day, lunch, room switch, we lost them.

I asked the aide if we should get some new face masks. She shrugged her shoulders and said, "If you don't want to get the flu." Makes sense.

But we didn't, and as I was leaving Dad I leaned down and gave him a kiss on the cheek. And then, without thinking I kissed him again, this time a quick peck on the lips. I wanted him to know that I love him. But as I stood up and made eye contact with the aide I thought ... this guy is in the hospital for influenza, how stupid am I? Everybody around him was doing everything they could to protect themselves from his viruses. I just leaned down, scooped some up and shared them.

As I drove away from the hospital I thought about the risk my heart propelled me to. If Dad died after I returned home and I caught the flu, would I be sorry? Not at all. Without really thinking about it I took a risk, ready to deal with the consequences. If he didn't die and I caught the flu, would I be sorry? No, I decided. I'm strong, my immunity system is healthy and I recover quickly from illness. It was still a risk worth taking.

Maybe my kiss will work the magic it used to on my son: health coming not by way of a physical change, but an emotional one.

I still haven't gotten the flu and Dad is being discharged this week. He's doing much better, thank you.

S.E. Livingston

Monthly Budgeteer columnist S.E. Livingston is a wife, mother and teacher who writes for family and education newsletters in northern Minnesota and lives in Duluth.

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