I got a letter from Lucinda, a retired nurse. She lives alone. No kids. Her husband died 12 years ago. Each week she volunteers in the hospital neonatal ICU.
“My job is to cuddle babies,” she says. “It’s the highlight of my life.”
Simply put, Lucinda cradles babies in her arms and loves them. That’s her official task. In neonatal units around the world, volunteers like Lucinda do this whenever mothers cannot be present. This is a very important duty.
Lucinda explains. “Without physical touch, babies die.”
This is because babies are humans. And all humans need touch, otherwise we fail to thrive. Which is why mortality rates in orphanages are 30 to 40 percent.
“The reason I volunteer,” says Lucinda, “is because babies need hugs and so do I. I live alone, I self-isolate, so these are the only touches I get.”
Which leads me to my first question. How many times have you been touched within the last 24 hours?
Take a moment. Think about it. Once? Twice. Not at all? Well then, how long has it been? Weeks? Months? Years? Somewhere around the installation of the last pope?
Before the pandemic you were touching others more often than you realize. Everyone was.
You’d go to lunch with friends and receive two hugs and four handshakes. Attend a barbecue at cousin Ray Ray’s house; 11 hugs, and a triple hug from Aunt Myrtis. Your niece’s wedding? Hug-a-palooza. Sundays at church? Mass huggings.
But that’s over now. America is not getting ANY hugs during this pandemic.
I have a letter from Alison, in Boston, who writes, “It’s been 10 months since I’ve hugged my mom.”
Here’s another from Ron, in Alexandria, Virginia. “I haven’t had a hug or a handshake in over a year…”
Lillian in Alpharetta, Georgia, says, “I’m a single girl, it’s hard to meet anyone during a pandemic… Sometimes I just want someone to just put their arms around me.”
I’m not trying to be Donnie Despondent here, but right now things are bleak in the hug department. And it only looks like things are getting more lonely.
Recent studies are showing that roughly four out of five Americans are missing physical touch right now. And if that doesn’t bother you, here’s another little gem: social isolation increases a human’s chances of dying early by 26 percent.
But enough numbers. After all, I’m no scientist. The closest I ever came to actual science was my fifth-grade science-fair project in which my cousin Ed Lee and I observed the effects of bottle rockets on residential mailboxes.
So as research for this column I called an actual doctor to get more of the science behind this human touch business. To do this, I consulted the phone directory and started dialing numbers. Here is what one nice doctor said to me:
“I’m sorry I don’t have time for this.”
So I called another doctor who answered his phone, and said, “I don’t know who you are, I’ve never heard of you before, I don’t feel comfortable talking to a stranger, please make an appointment if you want my professional advice. I’m very busy.” Then he hung up.
But the THIRD doctor was great! He actually heard me out and let me interview him. He had a voice just like Cheech Marin.
Here is what he said:
“Well, it’s not complicated, really. Touch is important to the human body, for all ages. Our skin is more than just skin, it’s our largest organ, and like any organ it communicates with your brain.
“The outermost layer of your epidermis is made up of billions of cells called keratinocytes, and these cells play a role in telling your brain that you are being touched.
“Those keratinocytes release ATP, a chemical that tells the brain, ‘Heads up! We’re being hugged!’ And your brain starts releasing feel-good chemicals.”
Doctor Cheech went on to say that the first chemical your brain releases when you receive physical touch is oxytocin. And if you don’t know what oxytocin is, you’re not alone. I didn’t either. I had to ask the doc about it.
He laughed. “Oxytocin is a hormone and a neurotransmitter. It works like a love drug. As far as neurological stuff goes, oxytocin is the Cadillac of brain hormones.”
Oxytocin also lowers blood pressure, reduces cortisol levels, it is associated with feelings of trust, empathy, security, and it counteracts the harmful effects of daytime television.
“And listen,” added the doc. “It can also help prevent you from getting sick.”
A few years ago, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University intentionally exposed people to the common cold virus to study their immunity functions. They gave many of these participants hugs. Others, however, received no physical touch.
In a few days, the participants who had been hugging like crazy were found to be somewhat protected from infections. The others, who hadn’t been hugging, developed full-blown colds and these participants were probably quoted as saying: “This is the worst experiment I’ve ever been involved in.”
So hugs, we’ve just determined, make you healthy. Why do I tell you all this? There’s a very important reason. Because I worry about you. I mean it. I worry that you’re not getting enough affection. I worry that it’s been weeks since someone has touched you. I worry that you’re craving basic human warmth.
I don’t know where you live or what you’re going through. But I know this pandemic is hard, and I know you’re suffering right now.
So if you’ve read this far, I sincerely hope you are able to embrace someone today. Like your kids, your spouse, or a person you live with. If you live alone, then hug your dog. If you have a cat, well, good luck.
And if you don’t have anyone to hug, tell me. Because once this pandemic is over, I’ll change that.
I’m coming for you first, Lucinda.