Preverbal Trauma: Dr. Robert Scaer Weighs In

Check out these quotes below about preverbal trauma from  the book The Trauma Spectrum: Hidden Wounds and Human Resiliency by Dr. Robert Scaer, a neurologist with almost forty years experience in the field of physical rehabilitation. Preverbal trauma is a field about which relatively little is known. While technology can do amazing things, such as keep a one-pound ‘micropreemie’ alive, we do not fully understand the negative repercussions of such radical interventions.


“Until the mid-1980s, medical science indeed considered the preverbal period of human development to be one of a primarily reflexive, noncognitive state of awareness of the environment. . . . the infant brain was felt to be resilient and plastic: It could tolerate injury much better than an adult because it was not fully formed” (99).

“We have found that . . . [t]he brain of the infant, and for that matter the fetus, is also exquisitely vulnerable not only to physical insult but also to pain, experiential trauma, and variations in the intensity of the bond between mother and infant, even the emotional equanimity of the mother while the fetus is in utero” (100).

“I was taught in medical school that . . . infants probably had a markedly diminished or absent perception of pain . . . . The screams of infants that I circumcised or stuck with needles to obtain blood, however, did not seem to support this medical assumption. These beliefs–that infants were not sentient, did not feel pain as much as adults, and, in any event certainly would have no memory for the negative events–permeated my early medical training” (101).

” . . . exposure of the fetus to the stress-related hormones of the distressed mother is likely to alter the infant’s adaptive capacity to further life stress. . . . exposure of the fetus to stress, including that derived from the mother, is a significant factor in the susceptibility of the infant to the later development of many diseases, especially heart disease and diabetes” (107).

“Vohr and colleagues . . .  concluded that ‘extremely low birth weight infants are at significant risk for neurological abnormalities, and developmental and functional delays’ . . . . One must conclude that in the specialty of neonatal care, science may have outstripped our society’s ability to deal with the complications and negative outcomes created by its expertise” (109-110).

Had the doctors considered the negative somatic, neurological, and emotional outcomes of my pyloric stenosis surgery at twenty-six days young–the consequences of intubation while awake, incision while paralyzed and aware, and the separation of baby and mother?  Are these types of actions ethical if the infant and the family cannot get the personal, social, and medical support they need to address critical issues that arise as the baby grows up? I’m weighing in: Physical survival should not be the only criteria in saving a baby’s life. Quality of life is equally important. Preverbal trauma is a reality, people. What’s it going to take for the field of medicine to wake up?

0 Responses to Preverbal Trauma: Dr. Robert Scaer Weighs In

  1. Thank you, Wendy, for feeding some more of Dr Robert Scaer’s work into your posts and into your comments on my work.
    These excerpts are so valuable and underline, as he and you say, that whilst medical and other sciences can do amazing things, it is too often very clear that very few practitioners are aware (or even questioning) the longer term personal and other costs of their “miracle working”.
    Sadly, many of us humans love adulation and quick fixes more than learning about and considering our duty of care.
    My pyloric stenosis surgery was probably life-saving from what I have read; my parents were too unaware and closed to help me on that one. But on the same basis, your surgery was quite likely not vital to saving your life, and far more damaging and disruptive to your family than mine. About 80% of babies at the age you were (almost 4 weeks) respond to medical therapy, a fact that was commonly known in 1952. Atropine treatment takes longer than surgery, and while it also needs careful application it has no known long-term effects.
    Would that parents of PS babies and the medical profession had been more aware of their choices.

  2. Absolutely! I have tears from reading what you said about the possibility that medical treatment really may have worked for me and saved me from the horrible trauma of surgery. You are a sage when you say that we humans like the quick fix rather than a deeply thought-through solution that has taken the long-term effects into consideration. I love that phrase you used: “the longer term personal and other costs of their ‘miracle-working.'” Indeed, medical “miracles” are often a mixed bag. I’m glad you liked the quotes and think they will be helpful to others.

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