One of the most meaningful interactions I’ve ever had with another human being was back in 2007, and it was a totally non-verbal exchange with a stranger.
I was at a follow-up appointment after my first surgery to repair the third degree burns on my right leg (a super fun story involving literal fire, a motorcycle, and a freezing winter night). The first surgery was basically preparing me for the second and final surgery – a skin graft – by placing an implant in the burn spot to trick my body into thinking I hadn’t actually lost an entire chunk of my dermis. I got to wear a wound vac – I lovingly called it my little fart machine because of the fun noises it made – that kept the wound site disinfected, but I still had to come to the doctor to be examined and debride the area, which was funnnnn. My previous appointment had involved the removal of most of the staples, and I say most because LOL they had missed two. Mistakes are made all the time, and it’s not like this was life-threatening, but I had already started growing scar tissue over the fuckers, so they really needed to be pulled out before causing further problems. Then I found out that the nurse was just going to, like, tug them out, and I hadn’t had a chance to take my Norco.
I looked at my mom, like, “Are they fucking kidding? Not even some lidocaine??”
She just grabbed my hand and told me to squeeze, so I sighed and gritted my teeth, accepting that I was about to feel some of the worst pain I’d ever experienced in my twenty-something years.
In the semi-private room with me was a two-year-old boy and his mother. The little boy had second-degree burns down his back, and he was there to have his own wounds cleaned. It was plainly obvious this wasn’t his first go-’round, as he looked nervously at the young nurse come in with a bowl of water, and he fought his mom as she tried to hug him tightly.
Just as the nurse started to remove my staples, the little boy’s nurse gently started stroking his back with the cloth. As pain shot through my entire body, he started screaming uncontrollably; I so badly wanted to join him, tears streaming down my face and my hand crushing my poor mother’s fingers.
The little boy and I locked eyes as we looked away for some kind of relief, not really sure what we’d find. With one little hand gripping his mother’s shirt, he reached out to me with the other, and I weakly extended my own. His cries lessened a bit, and I was so distraught for him that I wasn’t as focused on my own pain. It was this terrible, beautiful moment, where we connected on a level I hadn’t experienced before and haven’t since. It’s like a little part of me went to him and vice versa.
I asked my mom later what she thought happened, and she was very confused. All she could remember was trying to breathe through her own discomfort of having her hand squeezed. She could recall a baby crying but was too focused on me to really have it register in her mind.
Even though I returned every week for months, I never saw that little boy again, although I’ve thought about him often since then. He was probably too young to really remember what we experienced that day in the burn unit, but I sincerely hope everything turned out okay for him.