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From Across the Hospital Bed Boundary

Thursday, May 28, 2015
Geri Lynn Baumblatt, MA, Executive Director, Patient Engagement, Emmi Solutions Touch is comforting and reassuring. In some settings it’s been shown to reduce patient anxiety and length of stay.* Yet, a strange thing happens when someone in your family is in a hospital bed. Once there, attached to machines and IV lines, despite wanting to comfort and reassure them, they seem physically out of bounds. It often seems like a hand on their shoulder or holding their hand is the only safe contact.

Despite growing up and spending a lot of time in hospitals rounding with my dad, when he was the one in the hospital I was surprised how awkward it seemed to touch him in any way.

Then, sitting there feeling fairly useless, I watched my sister-in-law (a resident at the time) come in, and with gloved hands, gently rub away the dead, flaking skin on his arms and legs. Then she rubbed his feet. It was probably the best hour of his hospital stay. He may have even forgotten he was there.

Why is it so intimidating for families to touch someone once they’re in that bed? I know I was afraid of the machines, by how delicate and friable his skin was, and by the healing wounds and scabs on his legs. I wasn’t sure what was safe.

Even at the worst moments, families are often afraid to breach the clinical boundary of the hospital bed. In the movie Love Story, Ali MacGraw, lying in bed, terrified of dying, asks Ryan O’Neal to hold her. (For a 70’s flashback, see the clip here.) He awkwardly tries to lean over and hold her from the bedside until she says, “No, really hold me.” So he finally climbs into the bed with her.

The fear of touching patients in bed plays into the fear families often have about taking patients home to care for them. If we proactively spend more time helping family members understand what’s okay, whether it’s knowing if it’s all right to rub a patient’s back or showing them how to care for wounds, we can help build their confidence to care for family members at home. Then it won’t seem like such a sudden shift from sitting by and watching care to being responsible for giving care and literally being more hands on.

And in the hospital, patients and families may feel less like they’re staring at each other across an unspoken borderline.

* MacIntyre, B. et al. Altern Ther Health Med. The efficacy of healing touch in coronary artery bypass surgery recovery: a randomized clinical trial. 2008 Jul-Aug;14(4):24-32. Retrieved May 23, 2015 from:

Tags: family caregiver
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