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”.
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