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The power of touch

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Hospitalism is a term one rarely hears about nowadays although it seems to be making a comeback at the Children’s Hospital at Mount Hope where, at least in the Paediatric Intensive Unit, parents are not allowed to be with their dying children.

Hospitalism differs from hospitalisation. Hospitalisation is the temporary confinement of a seriously ill person in a hospital. Good hospital practice prevents hospitalism.

Poor hospital practice leads to more illness whether the patient is an adult or child.

Part of good hospital practice is insisting that close physical and emotional contact between patient and family and friends be maintained, even at the expense of medical and nursing procedures, including emergency procedures.

People simply do better in hospital when their loved ones are present.

Hospitalism was a paediatric diagnosis we used up to the 1970s, to describe infants who wasted away while in hospital because of lack of contact with their mothers.

Because of modern methods of caring for hospitalised children, it is rarely seen now and the term has been somewhat forgotten.

I remember first being told about it by Dr George Graham, Professor of Nutrition at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Head of the Nutrition Research Institute in Lima, Peru, making the point that these children wasted away, both mentally and physically, despite very adequate nutrition.

It seemed strange at the time to be told that a child could fail to put on weight despite getting enough food.

The fact that it was described by the Professor of Nutrition and the evidence there, in front of our eyes, a child in our hospital, well fed by the nurses but failing to gain weight and regressing socially, impressed us.

The term was introduced by Dr René Spitz through his work, some of which can be seen at:

He arrived at this conclusion whilst defining disorders in infants who were institutionalised for long periods and deprived of maternal care.

The notion was later expanded to refer more generally to severe and lasting maternal deprivation, whether in hospital or at home.

Children with hospitalism suffer because their mother, or a substitute mother, is not around to care for them. Care refers not only to nutrition but to affection.

Lack of physical and emotional care results in stress.

This happens to everyone, adults as well as children, and perhaps explains much of the unhappiness and anger in T&T these days.

Prolonged severe stress or toxic stress, such as not having your mother around to hug you and feed you for months or having to spend three and four hours a day in traffic for years or having to live in fear, night after night, in your neighbourhood, results in illness. Toxic stress raises the level of stress hormones in the realitybody. People cope with stress through social means, by seeking, giving affection and touching \ each other.

What is the power of touch? Why does it make us feel so good?

Loving touch releases powerful hormones from our glands into the blood stream and into our brains.

Among the most influential are endorphins, the body’s natural pain killers, also responsible for the “high” that athletes get at the peak of their powers.

Touch raises the level of serotonin, relieving depression. Touch counteracts the release of stress hormones like cortisol. Touch switches on growth hormone and makes children grow. And it provokes the release of the love hormone, oxytocin. Touch then is not only an expression of love, it also stimulates feelings of love.

Absence of love results in physical and emotional illness. In growing and developing humans ie children, it results in failure to grow, they become malnourished (“marasmie”), as well as affecting them socially and linguistically (“someone put maljo on them”).

In adults it may do the opposite, make people overweight. It certainly makes us anxious and depressed.

Wonder what per cent of the population is on chronic alcohol, anti-anxiety tablets and anti-depressants.


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