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Fly without Wings

A fly is drowning in water. You want to save it. But as you lift it out, you damage its wings. It can no longer fly but yes, you saved its life. It walks away and hides under a leaf.

This is what life is like after infant surgery without anesthesia at one-month-old.  I recovered from the condition that required repair, but somatically and psychologically, I teetered under a leaf, no longer able to fly. The doctors, and the medical field itself, believed that babies did not feel pain (yes, you heard that right). And so, they did not administer relief–not to me and not to tens of thousands of other little ones.

So the fly lives, trying to take wing, but fails. Children try to fly, but their bodies, emotions, and senses remember the assault. Nervous systems have gone haywire. The brain has suffered. Anxiety thrives, fear and tension amped. Defenses juiced. Minds numbed. Body and brain disconnected.

But, you say, we saved the fly. It would have died without our help. We lifted it from water. It walked free.  It lives!

Amazingly, you don’t even know that you’ve damaged its wings. You did your job, repairing the physical problem. Parents don’t realize the damage either because they weren’t told that anesthesia would be withheld from their baby. They didn’t sign on for that. They assumed their babies would be protected from pain. And so, after the surgery, they could not tend to their babies’ emotional and somatic wounds. Parents thought their kids had been given anesthesia!

In 1986, medicine could no longer ignore this issue. Dr. KJS Anand and Dr. PR Hickey had done the research. They provided evidence that babies were dying from the shock of too much pain. Also, Jill R. Lawson, the mother of a preemie who died after an invasive heart procedure, went public with the fact that her son received no anesthetic or pain control besides a paralytic drug that immobilized him. Though pain relief for infants is now recommended, medicine has not acknowledged the wounds it has caused. And shockingly, many doctors still do not believe babies feel pain and operate to this day without administering anesthesia.

And what of all these adults with damaged wings? Over many decades, hundreds of thousands of babies survived the brutality. They grew up. They hid under leaves. Life for many of these folks has been difficult. How have they coped with the somatic and psychological consequences of early torture?  Where is the compassion and affirmation? And where are the services they’ve needed all along?  They need these things now.