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She began to panic during a double biopsy. Then she felt a comforting touch

Aya McMillan says a gentle touch at the right moment was exactly what she needed.
Aya McMillan
Aya McMillan says a gentle touch at the right moment was exactly what she needed.

This story is part of the My Unsung Hero series, from the Hidden Brain team. It features stories of people whose kindness left a lasting impression on someone else.

In 2017, right after she turned 39, Aya McMillan was diagnosed with breast cancer. The news came shortly after a series of devastating losses, including the death of her dog and the end of a 10-year relationship.

"I have to say that that was probably the loneliest period of my life," McMillan said.

After the diagnosis, McMillan had to go through a series of tests and scans — most of which she attended alone. Her final appointment before getting surgery was an MRI that included a double biopsy.

"For those that don't know, [that procedure] essentially forces you to lie face down into what feels like a very loud coffin and you're asked to stay totally still as two horrifyingly large needles are injected from each side in tandem."

For the first hour of the procedure, McMillan endured the discomfort and noise, but just barely.

"My head was hurting from the cradle. My body was cold and cramping, and through the speaker, the technicians were pleading with me to stay still just a few minutes longer."

When it came time for the biopsy, she started to panic. She was just about to hit the button that would tell the technicians to stop the procedure when she felt a hand on her back.

"Someone was gently running their palm in a circular motion to soothe me the way a mom does with her child," McMillan recalled. "Those few minutes of physical contact, at a time when I felt like I had lost all my bodily autonomy, that was what got me through the biopsy."

McMillan had been face down for the procedure, so when she emerged from the MRI tube, she didn't know who had comforted her through the ordeal. But she says she'll never forget that act of kindness.

"Suffering can feel like such a singular experience. My unsung hero didn't just show me that I wasn't alone. [They] helped me feel it. And for that, I am forever grateful."

Listen to All Things Considered each day here or on your local member station for more stories like this.

My Unsung Hero is also a podcast — new episodes are released every Tuesday.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Autumn Barnes
Brigid McCarthy