CC Issue 43 / Social Work / Theology / Faith

Sterile and Untouched

The standards of cleanliness were superb. Faultless. Not a blemish in the shining, recently scrubbed and polished parquet floor. I felt urged on by the air of cleanliness as I obediently applied the alcohol gel on my way in to visit my grandmother in hospital. It really was very clean. Spotless.

But there were no flowers.

And as I arrived at the door I was informed that my grandmother was ‘in isolation,’ and pointed in the direction of the plastic yellow aprons and gloves. I confess I humoured them on the apron but the gloves were left untouched.


One of the 5 senses but perhaps the most neglected. No ‘National Institute for the Touchless.’ I recently read an amazing account of a surgeon’s work with leprosy patients over many years in India, and it was striking to see how debilitating and isolating life was without the sensation of touch while everyone else refused to touch you- the untouchables who could not touch. We are tactile beings. So much is communicated through our physical interaction with the world around us and with each other.

Yet here was my grandmother being turned into an untouchable.

I balked at the thought of having to maintain this barrier of sterility with gloves and apron. I could have had a ‘sterile’ interaction with her. Strange how one word could go in such different directions. Yet it feels like this obsession with cleanliness can engender sterility in all senses of the word.

For me, simple contact like a hand on the arm as I discuss a problem with a patient is a vital demonstration of trying to enter into that person’s suffering. It is a physical embodiment of empathy. Compassion never stands at a distance, sterilised from contamination by others’ suffering. It gets alongside and dirty.

And the God I believe in did the same.

“A man came along who was covered with leprosy… Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man.” Luke 5:12-13

One thought on “Sterile and Untouched

  1. Well written James. I SO agree. My profession allows me to touch and I sometimes think this is the most therapeutic part of a treatment.

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