The big brown eyes seemed to hold deep wisdom. Even while I was talking with her mother, six-year-old Gowri’s (name changed) gaze never left my face. She appeared to be assessing me.
“Oh yes, she understands all that we say,” her mother said, “But she doesn’t talk to strangers.”
Throughout her pre-operative evaluation over the next few days, Gowri didn’t say a word to me despite my best efforts to hold a conversation with her. As a surgical oncologist, my encounters are predominantly with older adults. Maybe I had lost the knack for connecting with young children.
The day of surgery arrived. Unlike most children I have seen, Gowri was extraordinarily calm. She was sedated by the anesthesiologist in the presence of her mother and taken to the operating theatre. The surgery itself was a little more difficult than usual but all went well and it was over in about two hours.
My anesthesiology colleague was extremely gentle in waking Gowri out of anesthesia. But as soon as she regained consciousness, she seemed very restless. The nurses tried to calm her down. She held up the little finger of her right hand. The nurse asked her “Do you feel like peeing, child?” She shook her head. But she still held up her little finger.
Was her finger hurting? The surgery was on her neck, so why would she show her little finger? I ran all possible explanations in my head – Was there any pressure on her hand during surgery? An electrocautery injury? An embolism into an artery supplying her hand? I was standing off to the side, but I came to take a closer look. She had seen me in my scrubs before and recognized me immediately. I took her hand to examine it – she immediately clasped her little finger around my own little finger and instantly became calm.
I tried my best but couldn’t examine her hand well in this position. My rational, non-emotional, clinical mind wanted to rule out any issue with her hand. But Gowri seemed to be content now. I kept holding her finger throughout her recovery from anesthesia and during her transfer to the post-operative ward. She had become her old calm self. After some time, we called her mother into the ward to see her.
Teary-eyed and anxious, Gowri’s mother came to her daughter’s bedside. Seeing her mother, Gowri gave a tiny smile. With the mother happily fussing over her, Gowri’s finger relaxed and let my hand go. Quickly I checked her hand again to make sure all was OK. It was.
All Gowri had wanted was a human touch.