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Can a Hand Job Heal a Broken Heart? An ‘Outlander’ Investigation

The laying on of hands is a healing tradition, but one writer has never seen hands touching THERE and doing THAT, as they were in a wild scene in the latest episode of the Starz series. So he asked a bunch of real doctors about the method’s medical veracity.

Starz/Ringer illustration

After years of observing Hollywood doctoring, any TV-and-movie viewer has seen hundreds of characters saved from seemingly certain fictional deaths. You know how it goes: Someone is circling the drain, their vital signs sagging. Someone else is holding their hand, saying, “Stay with me,” and telling them that they’re going to make it. And then, suddenly, salvation arrives. CPR. Paramedics. Tourniquets. Transfusions. Intubations. Nanobots. Antidotes administered just in time. Someone saying “Clear!” and applying the paddles. Tauntaun bellies and bacta tanks. Just when all appears to be lost, the fingers twitch, the eyes flutter open, the flat line on the EKG starts spiking. Name any kind of onscreen close call—we’ve seen it and accepted it.

But on Sunday, while millions were marveling about someone saying “Fuck” on ESPN, Starz raised the bar for TV medical miracles, introducing a possibly unprecedented procedure. On an episode of Outlander, someone saved a life through the power of partial nudity and a healing hand job.

A bit of background: Outlander, which is based on Diana Gabaldon’s book series, is the romantic tale of a 20th-century Englishwoman (Claire) who touches some mystical standing stones and is unwittingly transported to the 18th century, where she discovers she quite likes humping a hunky Highland warrior (Jamie). Their timeless love and sensuous sex scenes bridge the gap between centuries, overcome all historical obstacles, get the series renewed for six seasons, etc. With the slight exception of time travel, though, Outlander typically abides by the rules of real life. This isn’t a show where priests pray to the Lord of Light and regularly resurrect people.

Midway through Outlander’s fifth season, which is airing now, Jamie and Claire have settled in colonial North Carolina on the eve of the Revolutionary War. (Claire, by this point, has returned to the 20th century, given birth to their baby, become a doctor, and, after 20 painful years apart, time-traveled back to the past to let the bodice-ripping resume.) The episode in question, “Monsters and Heroes,” starts slowly enough, but disaster soon strikes, as it has a tendency to do when one lives in the wilderness without access to modern medical care.

Here’s the setup. Jamie gets bitten above the knee by a poisonous snake, and even though his son-in-law tries to suck out the venom, the leg becomes badly infected. Claire has cultivated penicillin 150-plus years before it was due to be discovered, but her only syringe shattered in an earlier episode, so she can’t inject the antibiotic. She gives her husband penicillin soup to sip and tries to treat the wound with maggots, but the infection is too far gone. Jamie is fading fast, and he refuses to let Claire amputate. Instead, the sexy Scotsman resigns himself to death and limps back to his bed, where Claire lies by his side. And … action.

The sequence seems clear. Jamie grows cold. He whispers his last wish—“Touch me before I sleep”—and stops breathing. Unable to find a pulse, Claire does what any good doctor would do: She whips off her nightgown and begins boob-to-boob resuscitation. When that doesn’t defibrillate him, she reaches down and, um, starts stroking. Then, with a gasp, the patient responds, revived via rub and tug. Earlier in the episode, Jamie joked that Claire needed to work on her bedside manner. She seems to have taken his comment to heart (and to hand).

Now, look. I like Outlander. I’m not nitpicking or prematurely calling the implausibility police. I’ve suspended my disbelief about the time travel. I’ve gotten used to the idea that someone from a pre-toothpaste period of primitive dental care might maintain perfect, pearly-white teeth. I’ve also come to terms with the fact that Jamie and Claire are supposed to be in their 50s, even though the only evidence of Outlander’s 20-year time jump is that the chiseled, thick-haired Jamie wears reading glasses and the toned, unwrinkled Claire sometimes sports strands of gray hair. I fully support Jamie and Claire’s love and undiminished sex drives. But a character actually coming back to life? Outlander, you’ve taken things too far.

Unlike Claire, I’m not a doctor; maybe med school’s steamier than I think. To find out, I sought the expertise of some nonfictional, 21st-century physicians. After checking to make sure I wasn’t preventing them from fighting a pandemic, I asked them to watch Outlander’s resurrection-sex scene and give me their expert clinical opinions on the advisability of flashing and massaging the penis of a man who has recently expired.

“First of all, I’m just going to say that I doubt that there’s a randomized trial of the efficacy of this maneuver,” says Dr. Paul Moorehead, a pediatric hematologist/oncologist in Newfoundland. Moorehead has a point: Claire may be the first to try this, so who’s to say she hasn’t stumbled on a miracle cure?

Medically speaking, though, there’s no reason to think this would work. Under normal circumstances, a handy activates the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, the doc says. The latter releases epinephrine, the same chemical that can, when injected directly, help restart the heart of a patient in cardiac arrest. But if Jamie’s heart has stopped, the chemical can’t travel from his adrenal glands to his heart. “If he really had arrested, she would almost surely have been better off giving him CPR,” Moorehead says. “Although his likelihood of surviving an out-of-hospital arrest is quite low, especially in 1771.” So what would Moorehead recommend? “Maybe a hand job with chest compressions would have been a better idea.” (Chest compressions by breasts don’t count.)

Because this is a matter of life and death, I ask for a second opinion. Dr. Daniel Sullivan, a pathology resident in San Francisco, concurs with Moorehead. “There’s a reason we don’t have a cadre of concubine-nurses on hand at our local EDs,” he says. (He means emergency departments, not the kind of ED that Jamie doesn’t seem to suffer.) Sullivan notes that normally, doctors try to avoid exciting snakebite victims, which would only make the poison circulate faster. In this case, of course, Jamie is past the point of worrying about venom; cardiac arrest poses the more immediate threat. Unfortunately, Sullivan says, it’s not one that Claire’s treatment is proved to remedy. “Skin-to-skin contact is important for neonatal bonding to parents,” he notes, “but shoving your breasts on a patient’s chest isn’t going to do anything.”

Beyond that, there’s the matter of the raging infection, which wouldn’t be addressed even if Claire had combined her unorthodox approach with by-the-book CPR. “Jerking him off isn’t saving his life,” Sullivan continues. “You need to correct for the underlying issue, or all that epi and chest compressions do dick-all.” (So to speak.) Still, Sullivan is grateful for the question. “It was a good thought experiment in terms of a systems-based approach,” he says, suggesting that if I do want a doctor to endorse the idea, I should try Dr. Phil.

If anyone would understand how the intimate bond between Jaime and Claire could affect the patient-doctor dynamic, though, it’s the Washington, D.C.–based husband-and-wife doctor duo of Jesse Roach and Nancy Fuller. After they review the tape together, Nancy, a psychiatrist, asks, “How far in the future is she from? Maybe they discovered some new technique in the 23rd century.” It’s a sensible hypothesis. Alas, Claire was born in 1918 and journeyed back to Jamie’s time from the 1960s.

“I’ve coded many patients,” says Jesse, an internist. “I wish I knew this was a potential option instead of drugs and compressions and electricity.” He notes that a hand job could produce some static electricity, but only about 200 millijoules, one-thousandth of the recommended jolt. “In a world in which a doctor can travel back to the 18th century, I’d like to believe that said doctor can generate 1,000 times the typical energy with her mystical hand jobs,” he concludes.

One would imagine, though, that a 200-joule hand job would be pretty painful, and Jamie seems to be in the opposite of pain. Therefore, Jesse has to conclude, “There is no medical plausibility to this.” Which isn’t to say that he would turn the treatment down. “I guess that’s how I want to go out,” Jesse says. “But I bet my wife will try chest compressions instead.” Nancy confirms this is the case.

Dr. Nick Fulton, a radiologist, advances a conspiracy theory: “Is it possible he was faking the extent of his injuries?” It’s an interesting point—someone in the history of the universe has probably pretended to be dead to get some hand stuff. Based on the couple’s sexual history, though, there’s no need for Jamie to play possum to score. And in fairness to Outlander, the hand job doesn’t heal Jamie for good. He’s still in line for amputation until his daughter fashions a syringe out of the fang of the snake that bit him, allowing Claire to inject the penicillin and put him permanently out of harm’s way. That’s just science.

Sam Heughan, who plays Jamie, was a fan of the scene. “What we wanted to do was show that through her touch—I think that she has this ability, I wouldn’t say it’s magical, but maybe it is,” he told Glamour. “She has this healing ability in her hands and in her body. I think it’s her love and her presence that certainly brings him back from the edge.” There’s certainly some sort of edging happening here. For Heughan, though, this isn’t really a raunchy scene. “That’s probably the most intimate moment we’ve had for quite a long time,” he continued. “But it’s not them having sex, it’s something deeper than that.”

If it is deeper than that, though, couldn’t the semi-magical touch have happened in some less suggestive way? Laying on of hands is a healing tradition, but the hands don’t typically lie there and do that. The evidently unintentional comedy of a miraculous climax sort of spoils the tenderness of the scene. I mean, much as Reylo fans might have approved, I don’t remember Ben Solo pleasuring Rey to resuscitate her in The Rise of Skywalker (which some might have considered to be unnatural).

Incredibly, this scene was true to its source material. If anything, the corresponding passage from Book 5 of Gabaldon’s series, The Fiery Cross, was toned down for TV.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gabaldon was pleased by how faithful the scene stayed to her text. “Helpless, [Jamie] chose to return (to pain and difficulty) in order to fulfill the role he knows God gave him: to protect those for whom he’s responsible,” the author told Parade in a post-episode piece. I suppose “pain and difficulty” is one way to describe it. (Side note: It’s possible that healing hand jobs run in the family: When Claire and Jaime’s daughter finds her husband near death earlier in the book, Gabaldon writes, “She wondered for a surreal moment whether to cup his genitals.”)

There’s a scene in the 2018 Nicole Kidman movie Destroyer where Kidman’s LAPD detective, Erin, grudgingly gives terminally ill ex-con Toby (James Jordan) a deathbed hand job in exchange for information. Both characters get what they want from the transaction, but neither one walks away whistling: Erin isn’t happy about the hand job, and Toby is still at death’s door. That was wild enough. Now imagine an alternate version of that scene where Toby kicks the bucket before he spills his secret, and Erin, desperate to save him, gives him a helping hand job. That’s essentially what happened here.

Not since a dog ate a heart at a hospital on One Tree Hill has a film or TV show graced us with a medical scenario so far-fetched. While we all wish it were plausible for a handy to heal a broken heart, the experts agree: Don’t try this at home, unless it’s just for fun. And if fun is all you’re after, why not try the jaws of life?