The idea for Discovering Hands came about because German OB/GYN Dr. Frank Hoffmann was frustrated with how little time he had to give each of his clients a proper breast exam. He didn’t want to miss anything, but he had other patients to get to, and he dreamed of a solution where every doctor was specially trained to give high-quality breast exams and had adequate time to give them.
Then an idea came to him. He knew that blind people generally have an enhanced sense of touch in the absence of their sense of sight, and this, he believed, would make them the perfect assistants to help with breast exams, freeing up his time for other patients while simultaneously ensuring that all the women under his care got a proper breast exam. He began to look into how he could make the program a reality.
Five women were chosen and trained for the medical tactile examiner (MTE) program and began performing breast exams on women. It took time to develop the curriculum, because blind people often learn a little bit differently than sighted people, but when all was said and done, the work paid off. Blind women were provided with a meaningful employment opportunity, and patients at risk of breast cancer were finally able to have tumors detected and treated earlier to improve outcomes.
With their training, these blind women can detect tumors just 6 to 8 millimeters in diameter, whereas most doctors can only detect lumps larger than a centimeter or two in diameter. They generally find about 30 percent more tissue alterations than doctors do, and they’re also able to spend more time with patients than doctors ordinarily would—about 45 minutes for each patient.
35-year-old Papamija is one of the first blind women to be trained to perform breast exams. She’s been blind since the age of seven due to a detached retina. “We are breaking a paradigm where people believe that because we have a disability, we cannot think or do things for ourselves,” she says.
Papamija and others like her use special Braille measuring tapes placed on the breasts of the patients to keep track of where any abnormalities are found, as well as to ensure that the entire area has been properly checked and nothing has been missed. When she’s done working, she doesn’t make any sort of diagnosis but reports any findings to the patient’s doctor for further examination.
The service does not replace mammograms and other diagnostic tests, but it is cheaper than many of them and offered to women of all ages, whereas mammograms are often only offered to those over 40 or 50 or to women with increased risk factors.
At this time, only women are used for the MTE program, because the patients, who are women, tend to be more comfortable being examined by women. For some patients, they’re also more comfortable being examined by a blind person than by a sighted person, because they don’t have to feel so self-conscious about their bodies.
This exciting program is only offered in certain areas of the world, such as Columbia and Mexico, at the moment, but it’s only a matter of time until people realize how beneficial it could be everywhere else as well.
Watch the video below to learn more about this unique program that’s helping blind women find meaningful employment and improving breast cancer outcomes for patients.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?