Whenever I tell someone of the new direction my life is taking–public speaking about PTSD Awareness and Self-Empowerment, teaching Writing as Healing workshops, and teaching reflective writing at a nursing program or medical school–I am often given a story in return. It’s usually after I mention that the field of medicine is undergoing a change of heart and that I want to aid in that process.
Recently, a co-worker told me about her grandmother’s passing. The hospital staff “just didn’t get it” she said and she often went home from sitting vigil at her grandmother’s bedside deep in thought about how a health care system could be so hard-hearted and broken. The nurses were just doing their jobs without compassion. Of course, there was a gem here and there, but on the whole–apathy.
Another person, a colleague, told me of his having undergone surgery for a urinary tract problem as a child. He was operated on without anesthesia and the entryway for the procedure was through his penis! The pain, he said, was unbearable–beyond words–and he attributes many of his life challenges, especially with romantic relationships, to this early trauma.
Guaranteed, everyone has a personal story or a one about a relative or friend who was traumatized by his or her interaction with medical professionals. From procedures and outcomes that were not well-explained to insensitive, cruel words, lack of heart abounds in medicine. Not to say that there aren’t successes. There are MANY and maybe we need to celebrate these more. But the woundings continue to hurt if not healed. Lack of communication seems to be the culprit.
Not everyone is a communicator. For example, someone who gets her PhD in a subject may be the penultimate expert but if she can’t communicate this material to students, she will not be a successful teacher. Same with a doctor or nurse. He may be a very skilled diagnostician, for instance, but if he cannot convey his understanding in a way that positively affects his patients, problems will result. I remember being correctly diagnosed with depression at age twenty-two, enduring months of internal agony, but since only antidepressants and a follow-up appointment a month later were offered to help me, I promptly threw the vial in the trash and proceeded to try to kill myself.
Perhaps this next example says it all. When I was brought to the emergency room after my suicide attempt failed, an orderly was assigned the grim task of cleaning me up, which entailed washing my butt and legs caked with feces from having shat on myself after an overdose of pills. Ok, not a job that anyone, except Mother Teresa, would want to do. But his disdainful silence–disgust really–during this task caused me such deep humiliation that it was every bit as traumatizing as the physical suffering that I had inflicted on myself.
We do tend to remember the bad more than the good. I think we need to talk more about the positive interactions with medical professionals in order to balance the equation. But often, the trauma still lives within us so that we need to tell the story in order to heal. When we find an opportunity to vent, we take it because we’ve held in the pain so long. In this chapter of my life, I don’t seek to villainize; I know that I was saved by the medical profession when I was operated on at three weeks old for pyloric stenosis. But the surgeon’s words that burned onto my mother’s brain, and hence onto mine–if she cries, she dies–almost killed me in the long run. We can certainly do better.