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Boston Doctor Physically Feels What His Patients Feel

BOSTON (CBS) - You've heard the expression, "I feel your pain," but some people actually do, including a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital who is able to connect with his patients on a level most can't.

Dr. Joel Salinas is not your average doctor.

"When I see people, I have the sensation of whatever touches their body on my own body as well and it's kind of reflected as a mirror," he told WBZ-TV.

It's called mirror touch synesthesia.

He's had this trait for as long as he can remember. In fact, he thought everyone had it.

"When I was a kid, having these experiences where if I would see someone hug I would feel the hug on myself or if I would see someone get hit, I felt the sensation on me as well," explains Dr. Salinas.

Dr. Joel Salinas
Dr. Joel Salinas (WBZ-TV)

He doesn't really feel it as pain, per se, but says the sensations can still be unsettling.

He recounted an experience in medical school.

"I remember one patient who unfortunately had an amputation of the arm from an accident.  I remember feeling as though my arm was dismembered and I could feel the blood."

Somewhere between one-percent and two-percent of the population have mirror touch synesthesia.

For some, like Dr. Salinas, it's an asset. For others, it's a burden.

"They're kind of crushed by those sensations because it's too much and it's overwhelming and they develop issues with anxiety and depression and essentially become shut-ins at times," said Dr. Salinas, who has learned to focus his mind so the cues he's constantly bombarded with don't distract him.

When asked if it makes him a better doctor, he says, "I think it's empowered me to really connect with my patients. There's a wall that's torn down when you feel a lot of the sensations that your patients feel as well. It's like being aggressively put in somebody else's shoes."

Dr. Salinas wouldn't have it any other way.

"It's part of who I am. It would be really weird not to have it."

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