There Are No Hugs with Telehealth

June 16, 2020

A cancer survivor deals with virtual examinations and how they can feel impersonal.

I don't like telehealth appointments. Cancer is isolating in itself. Going to see my cancer doctors was always comforting. My oncologist always wrapped her arms around me at the end of the appointment. There are no hugs with telehealth.

During a medical exam for cancer, the doctor lays her hands on you. She checks to see if the cancer came back. During my most recent telehealth appointment, I had to place my own hands on my own body. Something was lost in the translation.

"What I want you to do," she said, "is place your hands above your collar bones and press. You're checking to see if your lymph nodes are enlarged. Do you feel anything?"

"No," I said.

"Great, now feel under your arms pits. Do you feel any enlarged glands?"

"No."

"Good. Are you keeping up on your breast exams?"

"Yes."

"Notice anything suspicious?"

"No."

"Well, then you're good to go."

I hope I am. My hands aren't as trained as my doctor's hands are.

It is here where my oncologist would have given me a big hug. But that day, I got a virtual smile.

I understand the reason for telehealth (the COVID-19 pandemic), but I also wish I could see my doctor in person.

Besides the impersonal aspect of telehealth, when I looked at that screen, I looked horrible. My face was a big, round ball, and there were two inches of grey hair on the crown of my head. Of course, I wasn't wearing makeup. Who needs makeup during a pandemic? Telehealth reminded me of the ten COVID-19 pounds I'd added to my body from snacking while bored.

Telehealth can "out" you if you've got a cluttered house. The doctor can see into your little world. In many ways, you lose your sense of privacy. Telehealth is an intrusion.

And who has a completely quiet home? There's usually a child making noise or throwing a tantrum. The doctor can glean what kind of parent you are. Another invasion of privacy.

Overall, telehealth is an unsatisfactory experience. There's just no substitute for a good old-fashioned doctor visit that ends with a reassuring hug.

But one good thing happened at a telehealth meeting recently. During an online appointment with my radiologist, the doctor discharged me and told me I didn't have to see him anymore. It had been four years since my angiosarcoma, and he felt that my oncologist could continue to observe me; his services were no longer necessary. So no more radiologist appointments!

The one constant between the virtual doctor appointment and the real one is that a patient can hear good news or bad news. So glad my news was good.

I can't wait to get back to face-to-face doctor meetings and ultimately to the day of no telehealth.

My goodness. In a couple of years, my oncologist will cut me loose as well. And with a little luck, this cancer journey will be over. I'll miss my sweet oncologist, but I hope she'll let me take her to lunch once in a while.

We won't be doctor and patient anymore. We'll just be two people eating Caesar salad topped with grilled chicken and drinking iced tea with lemon.

We will be friends with a special history—a history of cancer.


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