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ER Doctor: It’s Time to Bring Back Hugging – Everywhere

By Dr. Louis Profeta

Hugs. I love hugs. A good hug is one of the best feelings in the world. I love it when my kids hug me, friends, strangers, whomever. I love it when a patient gives me a hug on the way out. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, it feels special.

My childhood is filled with hugs from my parents, relatives, teachers, friends, coaches, school bus drivers, school janitors, the lunch lady and on and on. But, now, hugging is not only under threat but in many venues, it has been transformed by fear, by political correctness, by threat of litigation and by the actions of oversensitive, self-appointed "protectors of our children" into something else. It has been stripped of its transformative expression of love and cloaked in a robe of sexism or, even worse, perversion. It has become something to fear.

It only takes a click of a mouse to find countless schools, institutions and workplaces that have made the leap to banning hugging. From kindergartens to high schools, from places of employment to houses of worships, institutions are enacting rules that not only prohibit contact, but threaten "the hugger" with firing, expulsion or even possibility of criminal charges. Our bosses, our principals, our clergy, our parents and all of us individually bear part of the blame, because instead of taking a stand and saying, “you got to be kidding me,” we allow them and us to cave into fear of the "what if" and we follow along like feral kittens.

The need to be hugged and experience human contact is in the root of our DNA. It is the building block of our soul. It is as much a part of each of us as the air we breathe. We curl up and we die inside without it.

I remember in college taking a psychology class where the professor showed videos of monkeys that, shortly after birth, were raised in isolation and deprived of any physical contact. They often were prone to violence and would sit in the corner hugging themselves and rocking in obvious despair. When placed back in cages later in life with other socialized monkeys, they cowered in fear. It was heartbreaking and even to this day, it is one of the most distressing films I have ever seen.

Over the years in ER, there are many things that have distressed me, horrible things that wake me up at night. Images of parents hugging the dead body of their child so tight you are certain a truck could not pull them apart. But the sick notion that hugging is anything other than a form of affection meant to comfort, thank, appreciate, love, or welcome another tops it all. The stupidity of our bosses, school administrators, educators, and oversensitive idiots who think there is something abusive or sexist in the act is beyond description. Oh sure, I know I’ve seen the hyped-up news stories of some teacher or coach, or mother’s ex-boyfriend, who took advantage a child and even robbed them of their innocence. Yes, it’s horrible. Sure, there may be some perverse secondary gain some fringe sicko might find in the act. Certainly, we must always work to prevent that. But you can’t tell me that this fear should justify the creation of any policy that regulates an act of comfort and affection especially when that policy bans it all together.

My kids went to a fairly tough public school. The junior high football team allowed me to help coach mostly because I was a doctor, I brought lots of first-aid stuff and because I had a kid who was a really good player. There were only a couple kids that were, for lack of a better word, affluent. Many, both black and white came from families of single parents, at-risk kids, etc.

I made a real concerted effort to never yell unless it was to cheer their effort and if the chance arose always putting my arms around them and telling them what a great job they did that day. I encouraged them to study, usually in my own subtle way.

I’d put an arm around them, pull them close and say something 'uplifting' like, “Hey, Laurell, were you an idiot in school today?”
“No doc, I wasn’t an idiot today,” he’d smile with squinting eyes and a big-toothed grin.
“You know, Laurell, the world is full of idiots. We don’t need more idiots now do we?
“No doc we don’t,” he’d laugh, look at the ground and kick up some dirt.
I kept up: “What about tomorrow? Are you going to be an idiot tomorrow?”
“No, not tomorrow either," he’d laugh again and shake his head inside his helmet.
“Then open a friggin book tonight, OK?”
“Now give me a hug,” I’d say.

He always obliged, awesome hugger, that Laurell. I pretty much did the same thing to all the kids to the point they would stop me, “Hey Devon, are you…” -- interrupting, “No, doc, I wasn’t an idiot today.”

Then they’d come up and give me a hug. A funny thing happened. In about two weeks, these tough kids, these children of felons, of divorce, of addicts, of poverty, started to come up to me without me saying a thing and give me a big old-fashioned bear hugs, sometimes picking me up off the ground.

You could see that not only did they want to express affection, they starved for it. I have three sons, one is still in high school, the others college. My star football player, who is the youngest, does not play anymore because of two knee injuries and I miss it. I still see his teammates, those kids from the past, at school functions or sometimes Steak n Shake, or roaming the sidelines of a basketball game or hanging in the parking lot after a football game. They all come up to me. None of them shake my hand. They saunter up next to me, put an arm on my shoulder until I recognize them and they turn and give me these huge welcoming hugs. It is the best.

So getting back to hugs. Not only should schools not ban them, they should encourage them. I propose that when the final bell rings, everyone in class needs to stand up, turn to a neighbor and hug them. Or better yet, perhaps a random tone that sounds between periods that alerts students that they have to hurry up and hug someone. Imagine the incredible transformation that could happen if hugs became a habit: at school, at work, in our neighborhoods.

Imagine how the tension might be eased if rival gang members were, for a brief period, to contemplate hugging the guy across from them instead of shooting them. Imagine how the lonely kid might feel, the ugly kid, the tortured kid, the labile kid, the bullied kid, the fat kid, or simply the kid who might feel like an outcast, if some random student who he or she did not know, turned to them and did the unthinkable: gave them a hug.

About the Author: Dr. Louis Profeta is an emergency physician at St. Vincent Hospital in Indianapolis, Indiana.  He is the recipient of numerous honors and awards for his contributions to community health.  He was recently recognized as the top Medical Voice for LinkedIn