PTSD is not inevitable

Not all sweet-tooths get Type 2 diabetes, and not everyone who experiences trauma develops post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Some facts about PTSD worth noting –

  • an estimated 70% of people will be exposed to a traumatic event;
  • of these, only 20% will develop PTSD;
  • at any time, an estimated 5% of people are battling PTSD;
  • women are twice as likely to suffer with PTSD because of their vulnerability to violence;
  • rape and not war is the leading cause of PTSD.

Like diabetes, those who are diagnosed with PTSD will have it anywhere on the scale from mild to severe, and also like diabetes, the symptoms of PTSD can be managed… though not erased.

Having had pyloric stenosis (PS) and an operation at 10 days old to remedy this bowel blockage affected me and my parents so that I have struggled with it, mostly but not always privately, for much of my life.  Only in recent years has my mostly hidden throbbing been identified as PTSD.  And only in recent years have I discovered and formed friendships with others who share my story; we realise now that our pain was not unique, imagined, or silly.  Great relief!

Comparing notes with others and reading their accounts, together with some googling, have also taught me that PTSD comes in many shapes and sizes.

What does post-infant-surgery PTSD look like?

To answer this question, click on this link and read US psychiatrist Dr Louis Tinnin’s two blogs on this subject.  If you have not come across Dr Tinnin’s blogs, have had infant surgery or other early trauma, and are troubled by emotions, drives, cravings and addictions of which you cannot understand the cause but which you also cannot deny are real, check this blogsite now!

I have expressed my gratitude for Dr Tinnin’s information several times in my posts here.  Reading his discussion and 10 diagnostic questions were a clarifying and liberating experience for me.  My personal answers to these questions brought into focus almost everything I had personally struggled with through most of my life.

Can someone have had early surgery but no PTSD?

Almost all of the people with a PS history whom I have met in person or via the web seem to be free of PTSD.  Were these people making belief or unaware?  If I and others have the problem and it’s real, why doesn’t everyone?

Remember, only some 20% of 70% are seriously affected by trauma.  And not all infant surgery is traumatic.  Let me suggest some additional reasons why not everyone who had infant surgery is suffering with PTSD today.

1                    Infant surgery is now vastly different from the way I and other people experienced it.  Without going into rather ugly but true details let me explain how.
Kind and effective pain management before, during and after infant surgery is almost universal now, and in the 1980s and ‘90s the medical world came to an almost universal recognition that the old mantra, “Babies don’t feel or remember pain” was terribly wrong.
In my day babies were routinely kept in hospital for two weeks after surgery, and during this time infection control had to be strict, making personal contact between mother and infant minimal or totally forbidden.  Infection control, hospital care and the recognition of babies’ vulnerability to separation anxiety at a time of pain and other stress have changed greatly.

2                    Parent education and their understanding of their children have also developed greatly.  Despite growing up in a truly good Christian home with many benefits, my parents were of a generation that didn’t tell their offspring very much.
I can get tears of joy when I read some of the current blogs in which today’s parents relate how they told their child about their surgery when a baby.  Many have told in simple terms about what happened, including their own fears and joy, they explained the scars, helped their offspring deal with the inevitable stares, sick jokes and questions.  And they answered the inevitable questions frankly and positively and would at suitable times mention their child’s story in public – always in the key of celebration rather than embarrassment.
Surely this is model parenting that must be the standard!

3                    Minimal access techniques are now available for increasing numbers of babies who need infant surgery and this can greatly reduce scarring.  This must affect the number of people who are affected by self-image struggles linked with their infant surgery.  But read on…

4                    Our mind matters!  Whenever a surgery or accident scar becomes an issue, it’s a problem primarily for the bearer.  Family, friends and lovers will typically find it interesting, perhaps sexy, and nothing much more.  Having said this, any scar, whether large or small, obvious or usually hidden, can be either a life disrupting embarrassment or laughed off with a tall story, depending on our character, attitude and preparedness.
My PS scar is usually hidden, average in size, but quite obvious and gnarly in a mid-20th century sort of way.  I long had great embarrassment, self-image issues and other turmoil with it, and now I often wonder how I would have reacted if my life-saving surgery had been done in a tidier 1980s or a minimally obvious 21st century way!

The above list of variables explains to me why I have lived with a form of PTSD from my early surgery whilst others with a similar experience seem to have escaped years of lonely frustration, fear, obsessive behaviour and inner confusion.

There’s another thing I have come to recognise: my PTSD has in fact been relatively mild when compared with that of others of a similar age who had the same surgery as I did.  And it seems that more than others, I have learnt to manage my PTSD to a fair extent.

The best news I have discovered here is that PTSD is not inevitable after infant surgery!

In the light of what I have learnt and explained, our little ones and growing children who have infant surgery (even major surgery) today need not merely survive, only to grow up with trauma lurking in their system.  Given the skittles line up, they can grow up without their surgery leaving them with PTSD.

And informed and wise parents can certainly do some important things to line up the skittles for their child’s life-long benefit.

In my next blog I want to look at the different ways in which PTSD can affect us.

2 thoughts on “PTSD is not inevitable

  1. Wendy

    You put the case forward quite well. Thank you for including links to Dr. Tinnin’s blog as well as the doctor from whom you took some reference material. You are spot-on in your assessment of the situation – that most experiencing a traumatic event will not develop PTSD but that those who do often suffer quietly and quite severely. One issue that bears more looking into is the fact that not all who experience trauma do get PTSD. I’m sure one of the big preventatives is, as you discuss, the parents’ response to their child’s issue. One of the articles I read about PTSD and war stated that soldiers who experienced trauma from a pre-war event and then experience trauma in war are the ones who come home with PTSD. One thing I hadn’t realized is that more women have PTSD from rape than men from war. Certainly there’s a great need in society for the type of material you are sharing. Be on the lookout for articles and events related to the upcoming PTSD Awareness Day on June 27th in the United States. Thanks for your dedication to this issue and to your own healing.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    These comments are very helpful, Wendy: I value them as they add valuable considerations to what I have found and written.
    Our understanding of PTSD and its causes and courses still has much to discover, and I’m glad that there is much work being done; I imagine that is because it’s so widespread and debilitating.
    It may need people like us to advocate for those who are struggling with trauma after infant surgery.


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