Are infant surgery and PTSD linked?

Many of us dismiss the possibility that our adult well-being can be affected by anything that happened to us in our first weeks.  After all, how many of us remember, let become nervous and unsettled, by thoughts of our short but uncomfortable passage into the big, bright and breezy world?  Or by having our umbilical cord cut, or possibly by our circumcision?  In fact, not many of us can remember anything before our 4th or 5th year.

More worryingly, at least some in the world of medicine thought as much until quite recently.  The many published medical journals I have read seem to show that general or local anesthetics, although crude by today’s standards, were commonly used with infant surgery, even back in the 1920’s.

But these reports also show that at least some surgeons did not bother with pain control, at least until the late 20th century.  After all, local and general anesthesia each had disadvantages, and a baby wasn’t affected by pain.  That’s how many doctors spoke to anxious parents.  These doctors used sugar cubes or alcohol to pacify the baby-patient, strapped it firmly to a timber frame, and closed their minds to the screaming and body language of agony as they went about their work.

And so infant surgery, especially in smaller local hospitals and at the hands of certain surgeons, could be “rather basic” in the days before these kinds of procedures were centralised in large and specialist children’s hospitals, and before the development of our current understanding of infant sensitivity to early starvation, severe pain, maternal deprivation, and the long-term effects of early trauma.

Very early in my life I underwent surgery to remedy pyloric stenosis (PS).  My parents would never talk about this for reasons I can only guess at, and they chose to dispose of any medical records they might have had.

Not unexpectedly, I have felt a deep-seated need to understand as much as I can about this mystery-ridden and hidden early chapter of my life, so I have read widely and come to some tentative conclusions:
1)  My surgery was done as sensitively as was possible in 1945 (as we say now, “world’s best practice”),
2)  I was affected in several ways by the severe malnutrition and dehydration that all-too-often comes with PS,
3)  My mother and I were affected by probably two weeks of maternal deprivation during my post-surgery hospitalisation, and
4)  As I have explained in earlier posts, I find no reason to doubt that I have been affected by the above circumstances and their flow-on effects on me and also my parents.

From what I observe, far from everybody who has experienced very early surgery is living with clearly recognisable long-term effects.  Is this because many don’t recognise or care about the symptoms or because they choose to ignore or live with them?  All things considered, we surely know many troubled people whose problems could be related to trauma.  I think of people who abuse physically or emotionally, those who have an anger management problem, and folk who seem to run into trouble with anyone in authority.  Are we sitting on a mountain of personal and social problems linked with formerly routine male circumcisions and the occasional life-saving but also hazardous infant surgeries?

It also seems to me that my PTSD has been brought out or exacerbated by my genetic make-up, personality, and / or my complex relationship with my parents.  I am reminded from time to time that our understanding of PS, the infant mind, trauma, and genetics are “works in progress”.

Please feel free to add a Comment (a “Reply”) about your experience or thoughts.

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4 thoughts on “Are infant surgery and PTSD linked?

  1. Mark

    It is my opinion that not many are affected like we are Fred, but of those that are, many misunderstand the roots of the symptoms they experience. They call their issue chemical dependency, bipolar disorder, clinical depression, and a whole slew of other names. Some act out, others internalize and hide. I did this too till i kept digging deeper for the cause, and discovered that all roads led back to my surgery as an infant, what I had been told, and my emotional reactions to it.

    When asking the question “Why me and not others?”, I do not have an answer, only an opinion. We are all created with a special set of talents and abilities. Every once in a while a child who has a unique nature, experiences a tramatic event, and is imprinted/branded/scarred for life as a result. It does not matter what lengths we go to to understand or process the facts of the event; to disassociate or morph the facts into someting more tolerable; to deny, rationalize, minimize, intellectiualize, or sensationalize the truth; we eventually default to the instinctual memories we have and the unavoidable feelings of hurt, betrayal, and terror.

    The first happy part of this was finding a few other “wackos” like myself to talk to and help me debunk the myth from the truth. It really does me good to be able to safely talk with you guys and explore myself and my “silly” fears.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Thank you so much for these helpful remarks, Mark. I so value your comments as they are always careful, perceptive and ring true. And they clearly add value to what I have written.
    True, we are not a position to research the issues we’re dealing with here at a professional level. But like you I suspect that I have strong reasons, both personal and based on my reading, to believe that our “opinions” are the fruit of many years of all kinds of work, and are therefore very close to being “the answers”.
    It’s exciting that professionals (like psychiatrist Louis Tinnin and others I mentioned in a recent post) are now publishing material and conducting therapy that joins significant dots in ways that confirm and extend what we’ve been suspecting. I hope that one day people with the necessary credentials and with something of our motivation will put together the remaining parts of the puzzle.

  3. Wendy

    You guys are awesome. We are really in synch. (I’m writing a myincision post right now that speaks to some of the issues you both raise.) I like the careful and thoughtful way you both write about these issues, which gives credibility to the sensitive subject on which you focus. I am in good company and hope a few more “wackos” will join us. I do think circumcision without anesthesia has caused a lot of anger issues for many and might be attributable to some of the violence we experience in the world on a daily basis. Certainly, drug and alcohol abuse are ways of coping with infant trauma; psychiatric disorders, too. Of course, my perspective is that of a layperson. Still, our experiences hold weight and give authority. There may be many more sensitive souls out there than you think. Let’s keep talking this up.

  4. Fred Vanderbom

    Thank you for your encouragement and support, Wendy, for this post and its ensuing Comments – in fact for all that we’re doing through our blogging. The Bible book of Ecclesiastes says that “two are better than one” and that “a cord of three strands is not quickly broken”. How true it is that you and I with others’ input feel increasing assurance and authority as we write – and respond to the heartening feedback.
    On the basis of what we are learning and sharing at “myincision” and here at SIS, I too believe that there are more, quite likely many more, who are travelling the road we have been on, and so both our sites will continue to explain, advocate and offer a happier journey.


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