Embodied Ethics: A Phenomenology of the Neonatal Nurse's Touch

  • Author / Creator
    Lemermeyer, Gillian
  • This phenomenological study explores the lived experience of the nurse’s touch in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Touch is deeply embedded within NICU nursing, sometimes so taken-for-granted as to seem invisible, but implied in nearly every nursing gesture and pursuit. Inserting an intravenous line, bathing a baby, assessing vital signs, holding and rocking a baby to sleep, and more; all are rich with the immediacy and intimacy of bodily contact and dependent on sensitive, capable gestures of touch. The manifold meanings of human touch may also go unrecognized, obscured within the tasks and work of nursing. Interpreting touch as simply the medium for nursing tasks may fail to capture the more originary meaning of touch between people as an ethical encounter, that quietly inheres in everyday moments of contact. In this study, I reflect on the nurse’s touch as a site of relation, revealing the felt sense of ethical demand experienced in the interface of touching contact.
    The project is situated in the qualitative research methodology phenomenology of practice (van Manen, 2014). Given to cultivating rich and ethically sensitive understandings of human life as it is lived, this form of interpretive inquiry is a strong fit with exploring the subtleties and sensualities of contact in an investigation of the embodied nature of the nurse’s touch. This inquiry is set primarily in the NICU where it is hard to imagine a human being that requires more delicate, nuanced, and skillful touch than the premature and ill newly born baby. By attempting to describe these practices and their possible meanings, my intention is to show that the ethical significance and contribution of touch might be realized as the corporeal wisdom of the nurse. This understanding may have a formative effect on our individual and professional consciousness, conversations, and curricula.
    Findings, insights, and explorations of the research are collected in three manuscripts. In the first paper, I consider the phenomenological interview as a means to gather detailed experiential description of the phenomenon under study. Using examples, I emphasize the methodological importance of detailed concrete descriptions of experience in phenomenological inquiry. I grapple with how to practice the phenomenological reduction during the interview, in service to setting aside preconceptions and assumptions about the focus of the study, including how to recognize concrete descriptions. In an important sense the researcher is trying to be invited into the participant’s world and to stand alongside them in a lived-through moment.
    In the second article, I have composed the research text around the following interpretive themes: the learning touch: finding a way to hold the baby; the marking touch: when touch lingers long after physical contact; the missing touch: or touching without physical contact; the gnostic touch: the possibility of knowing an other and ourselves; and the call of touch: drawn to hold. Exploring the touching gestures of the NICU nurse discloses the relational ethics at the heart of these caring practices. We reveal and appear to each other, baby to nurse and nurse to baby, through the proximity and closeness of touch. I explore further the experience of the nurse’s touch in the third manuscript, through phenomenological reflection on descriptive accounts of the nurse’s touch from poetry, fictional prose, neonatal nurse interviews, as well as scholarly and personal accounts. These examples help to cultivate insights into the nurse’s touch as a site for an ethical encounter, while contemplating the normative character of a good touch. The human connection of intimate contact -- both touching and being touched -- holds the possibility of transformation for the nurse.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2021
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.