When Medical Professionals Wound

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.

0 Responses to When Medical Professionals Wound

  1. Oh my gosh, Wendy, you’ve done it again! “If she cries, she dies”? I am guessing that the doctor meant that if you cried, the muscle contractions involved would somehow break stitches if you cried before your incisions had completely “healed.” Am I right? Do you know if the doctor gave any more specific information? Did he say how long this restriction on crying was supposed to last?

    But most of all, I’m alarmed at this stricture because of its blatant disregard for you and your feelings, which also needed to heal. The surgeon may have had technical skill, but he (or she?) clearly lacked empathy, probably because of the monstrous notion that babies don’t feel pain during the surgery. If the surgeon believed that falsehood, I suppose he would believe that any crying you might do during your healing process would have nothing to do with the surgery.

    Given what I know about healing from PTSD, there is a lot of crying that is necessary, even if the trauma was forgotten for decades. The imprint of the trauma stays in your amygda as long as you live and can cause lots of symptoms as its effects “leak” into your behavior, causing depression and suicidal ideation and chronic shyness.

    Thanks for all you are doing to help educate the medical community and people like me who have similar problems. And thanks for continuing to share on your blog!

  2. The restriction on crying and any strong emotion was to last as long as my incision was healing–months. When I was 26 years old, I finally stumbled into a mental health center where a therapist was answering the phones. She saw my distress and took me into a small room off to the side where my terror spilled out. I told her, “I know it sounds nuts, but I’m afraid if I cry, I’ll die. I had this surgery at 26 days old.” She gave me permission to cry and I spent the next three years writing, crying, kicking, screaming. I had dropped out of college and simply dedicated my life to recovering myself. I housecleaned for money, went to therapy, read books, wrote, and cried and cried. I had like one friend; thankfully, a very dear one. I was putting myself back together after a lifetime of being frightened to cry or feel any feelings at all. Fear was my fuel. Can you believe it? I carried out the doctor’s restriction on crying for over two decades?

    That’s interesting what you say about PTSD causing “chronic shyness.” I knew about the depression and suicidal ideation but not this other aspect. I experienced paralyzing shyness, especially early on. I want to learn more about the amygdala and PTSD–the mechanism of it. I am listening to Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s tapes about neurobiology. Thank you so much for writing to me. Your words are so important to me because I know you’ve been through so much of what I’ve been through, albeit differently. But we have so much in common. Your response inspires me to keep spreading the word.

  3. Hi Wendy,
    I’m not sure how I came to be here; perhaps I was thinking of your retirement luncheon and felt like looking you up on the web, taking a trip around the internet before getting back to grading papers. Anyway, I’m here, and I have read a lot of your posts from the present back to your ice-skating fall. There’s a lot to process here. Of course, that’s why you’re writing the blog… Really, there’s so much to take in, I have no meaningful or specific response right now. I just wanted to let you know I was here, and I have seen and read and heard and appreciated.
    Love and hugs to you,

    • Thanks for commenting, Lorna. And thank you so much for reading my blog–for hearing and appreciating. It means a lot. Hugs back!

  4. Wendy, I’m honored to know that my responses are inspiring you to keep spreading the word. I suspect that there are many people who have problems like ours but haven’t been able to find the cause or anyone who can really help them. This is partly because psychologists and psychiatrists are not trained in such matters as infant surgery without anesthesia and even practitioners of regressive therapies are not necessarily able to recognize the implications of our presenting symptoms and make the kinds of suggestions that would help. I know from experience. Most therapists tend to want clients to calm down and prescribe medications to reduce or prevent the discharge of feelings of pain, terror, and rage which, in fact, are very important components of effective therapy.

    In some ways, I see you and me and those others who have discovered the shocking secret of our own personal infant surgeries as psychological sleuths who have unearthed the “crime of the century.” In some ways, this puts us in an awkward position. We know something that many people would rather we wouldn’t mention. And many of those who might be unconsciously suffering from early medical interventions might be too frightened by what we have to say to want to follow in our footsteps.

    I’m glad you have been able to find receptive medical audiences. I discovered last summer that many members of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) are interested in what we might have to say. If you or anyone else reading this wishes to discuss such matters with me privately I can be reached at rcloverjohnson@verizon.net. Still, I am happy to keep talking in this open forum to you or anyone who wants to join in.

    • I absolutely love that you call it the “crime of the century” and that we are indeed sleuths. Yes, yes, yes. You absolutely get it. For me, I know that I cannot rest until I do my best to let others know about this “crime.” So many years of depression, so much suffering. Perhaps someone can be spared or some lost soul will begin to find him or herself. In any case, I continue to heal as I dialogue with others about this issue. Thanks for mentioning APPPAH. I applied to present at their conference the coming November, but I was turned down. I do plan on going, however. You?

  5. I’m sorry your presentation proposal was turned down. Since APPPAH was open to publishing Terry Monell’s article about infant surgery without anesthesia, you’d think they would be thrilled to get a presenter who can testify concerning the impact such surgery had on her life and, by extension, on the lives of millions of others.

    As you know, I consider myself one of those millions. I was urged by a friend, Dave Paxson, to submit a proposal to APPPAH, but for various logistic and personal reasons I decided not to this year. Nevertheless, I’ll be very interested in your “take” on the APPPAH meeting. I wonder if Terry Monell will be there. If so, I hope you’ll be able to talk with her. She definitely seems to “get it” about this issue. Perhaps you two could co-present sometime.

    I have secretly wondered if not mentioning circumcision in her article was an oversight or if she might have been advised to leave it out of her study. After all, the medical community as a whole appears still to consider circumcision a minor, routine surgery that may cause a baby boy to “feel some brief discomfort.” (Ha!) I am heartened to know that David Chamberlain, former president of APPPAH, is still passionately outspoken against circumcision, largely because the trauma, though “hidden for a while,” is never truly forgotten by the unconscious mind.

    When I first undertook bioenergetic analysis in 1974 I had some powerful temper tantrums on a king size mattress that brought some relief but did not release the precise somatic memory needed to identify the event I was responding to. A wise therapist said, “Your body knows. When you are ready, your body will tell you the secret.” It was thirty years later when my body, during a deep-feeling session, allowed me to re-live the surgical cutting sensations of circumcision. At last, I was ready to know! It took a year or so after that for me to be ready to speak of what I had learned from my lifelong quest to understand myself.

    Thanks so much, Wendy, for this remarkable dialogue.

  6. Thanks, Robert. Yes, I’ve been in touch with Terry Monell by email in the past and I will look for her at the conference. Maybe you and I can present something somewhere some day. I certainly would like that given that we seem to have taken similar, though somewhat divergent, paths in our healing journeys.

    How amazing that you “re-lived[d] the surgical cutting sensations”! I wonder where my experience of cutting stored itself. Frankly, I don’t know whether I received anesthesia or not. My records are gone. Given the research I’ve read on the SIS blog (Stories of Infant Surgery) presented by a dear friend Fred Vanderbom, since I lived in a major metropolitan area and the surgeon who operated on me was an actual pediatric surgeon, I may have had some anesthesia–perhaps not enough–or I may have had a local. In any case, I don’t think I had adequate pain control because of my “locked in” breathing patterns I cope with–a diaphragm that keeps freezing, so I find myself holding my breath off and on throughout the day for no reason, depriving myself of oxygen, and only noticing when I feel a bit dizzy or oxygen starved. I’ll suddenly gasp for air, for I’ve been completely unaware of my behavior. I’ve written about this phenomenon in my blog. Controlling my breath was a way of mitigating the pain, I believe.

    btw, I was fifty when I began to free myself in earnest from my body prison. I had overheard my pediatrician tell my mother that I could have problems with my stomach at age fifty, so unconsciously, I had been in a weird kind of limbo since I was one year old, can you believe it? When I made it safely past fifty, I felt permission to probe more deeply. The ways we “protect” ourselves are mind-boggling.

    So glad to be in dialogue.

  7. Thank you so much for this post and ensuing dialog, Wendy and Robert … it is so encouraging and breaks open several new areas of ground for me. I believe it is very significant for the journey we are on together.
    I’m so grateful as I see the circle of dialog growing in number and shared knowledge and experiences. I hope one or both of you can attend the APPPAH conference later this year. Wouldn’t it be a breakthrough if several of who have been working on infant surgery and ptsd us could not only attend but be invited onto the program?

    • Absolutely! I am planning to attend and I hope Robert does, too! I’ll keep applying. At the SF conference fall 2012, I’ll introduce myself to the event co-ordinators, who expressed their excitement about meeting me when they turned my proposal down :).  Wish you could come, Fred!  One day?  Why don’t we apply to do a presentation together for their 2013 conference?

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