Learning about infant surgery’s long-term effects

Babies who develop pyloric stenosis (PS) more often than not suffer severe malnutrition and dehydration lasting a few days or longer, depending on when the condition is recognized, diagnosed and treated.  Early starvation affects the baby’s brain, and PS itself and the surgery that is usually chosen to remedy it can have lifelong effects about which I written a post.  Several of these traits are ones with which I have struggled, and since I learnt some years ago about the possible link between PS, early infant surgery and a number of developmental traits, I have been inclined to attribute some of my personal challenges to certain events in the first chapter of my life story.

Many years later, I am finding that one of the joys of grandparenthood is that it allows my wife and me to benefit from observing our children and grandkids at a time in life when we have become less busy and focused and more reflective than during our parenting years.

Living in Sydney for a couple of months has given us more time with our daughter’s family there.  Our clan has long recognised that our nearly 7 year old Sydney grandson seems to be more like me than any of our four children and 9 grandchildren.  The kinship is clear in his build (tall and lanky) and in some of his character traits, and as he grows and develops this is becoming even more apparent.

Some of my grandson’s ways are bringing home to me some interesting truths and even some significant questions to ponder.

Fearfulness is common to almost all children, but…

When we are small and feel vulnerable, any dog, loud noise and the sleeping at the home of a trusted classmate can all be very scary.  What has struck me is how difficult it is to reassure a child who is overtaken by fear.  Fear can be most unreasonable and often paralyses.  We have forgotten many of the parenting experiences we ourselves dealt with but are now regularly reminded that dealing with fears and phantoms is a big thing in families, and that for a while many kids are just not ready to slay their dragons.

My grandson used to have as many fears as other grandchildren of ours, but like them he has grown out of them and now deals with most of his fears quite rationally – even before his 8th birthday.  He is really quite confident and brave, handling the reptiles that were the feature of his last birthday party, as well as the garden beasties at home.  His mother was able to coach him to manage trips to the doctor for a booster injection, and to the dentist (an even bigger bogey).

All this has made me reflect on the fact that there have never been any real ogres and no-noes in my life, except that a surgical scar from an infant pyloric stenosis (“PS”) operation in my very first days has been something that’s taken me most of my life to come to terms with (and I know of others who are still in the throes of revulsion over a similar experience).

The key?  Good parenting can help an average child to deal with almost anything.  Parents who (like mine) have not dealt with their own hurts and traumas can make it well-nigh impossible for them to not damage their own children.

Humble and self-effacing

My family in Sydney has two cars: an old gas guzzler without enough seats for the family and is used as a work car, and an SUV family use.  My daughter and her husband decided the old work car should be replaced, so my SIL took his son to a car yard and checked out a number of cars.  Having done this, dad asked his son, “Well, what do you think?”  Sonny-boy looked uncertain so dad encouraged him to say which he thought might be the nicest car to buy.  His answer: “Well dad, they’re all nice but I really don’t like any of them.”  “Why not?”  The reply broke his father heart: “All of these cars have got enough room for you, mum and the [three] girls, but not for me.”

I’m also someone who tends to jump to unwarranted conclusions and sell myself short – as my family sometimes has to tell me.

Since reading that lack of self-confidence can be the result of the malnutrition that comes from PS, I have claimed that link for myself.  But I’m realising that although that this may well be a valid linkage, my genetic code is certainly also a factor.

Obsessive and scatter-brained

My grandson is (again like many children) quite obsessive: his present crush is on dinosaurs (and again, he’s not unique there).  He gets books on them, draws them, collects them in toy form in 101 varieties, watches every movie and YouTube he can find, talks and plays dinosaurs, and even roars and snarls at his sisters like the ones on the video.

He’s also outrageously scatter-brained, as I realise in the morning when my daughter struggles to keep him on task when he’s supposed to be getting ready for school.  It only takes a thought or something interesting in his field of sight, and he’s off-target and running even later.

This too has made me realise that being scatter-brained and as obsessive as I am about myself, my work, and my interests are clearly not only the result of a brain affected very early by malnutrition and the trauma of 1940s style surgery.


Last Saturday was the first time I could watch this grandson play soccer.  The game was a walkover for my grandson’s young team (8-1) – but not thanks to him… As for me, I felt both jealous and a strong dose of déjà vu.

Jealous because I grew up in a very busy migrant family in the 1950s when TV had not yet reached Australia and very, very few people could afford the time and money needed for kids’ sport: consequently I grew up knowing virtually nothing about the then popular sports and understanding even less.  This didn’t inspire practice and dedication!  I always felt so unwanted and miserable when I had to play basketball, rugby and soccer as an essential part of my high school education.

Déjà vu because although my grandson was being coached and trained to play a brand of football from an early age, with the keen support of his parents and a sympathetic team, he looked so much like I know I looked on the field: out of place, awkward, inept, running after the ball rather than managing it.

Lack of physical coordination is another recognised effect of the kind of malnutrition that results from PS in babies, and since reading this I’ve attributed the combination of my early illness, the post-World War 2 and migrant conditions, and my parents’ preoccupations for my years of wretchedness in school physical education and sports.  Once free of the straightjacket of the school program, I found I was much better suited to individual than team and fast sports, and came to love jogging, walking, hiking and swimming.

Now, who am I?

So much of what I’m seeing in my Sydney grandson prompts me to ask myself: to what extent have some of my problems been genetic, and how much is due to early brain and emotional damage?  Ultimately, it makes no difference now, as I’m grateful to be a PS survivor from an era when this was not as assured as today, and I’ve learnt to live a full and fruitful life despite some sports and social situations being not-for-me.

My time back in Sydney has certainly been an eye-opener, raising and clarifying issues, enabling me to know and understand myself and my story better as I watch my grandchildren growing their own stories.

What have you, the reader of these reflections, learnt about yourself from observing and comparing yourself with other family members?

1 thought on “Learning about infant surgery’s long-term effects

  1. wendy williams

    Unfortunately, I don’t have grandchildren to compare myself with. I have also had little contact with my niece since early on, my brother barred her from my life with my partner because I am gay. You are very fortunate to have a large family that can reflect your life back to you from varying angles. Similar to you, I have often wondered about how much of me is due to inheritance and how much to my PS experience? And, of course, how much of who I am is due to gender indoctrination? Class prejudice? What goes into making a human is so complex. All I know for certain is that my mother’s constant negative remarks about the strain of my early surgery on the family and about how I looked pre and post surgery were devastating to my sense of self. I grew up with so much self-doubt that it’s hard for me to really know who I am presently. What’s fun about living today though is that since I’m able to identify PTSD symptoms and I’ve done so much to transform my life from a victim to a pro-active and happy person, I’m finally becoming more of who I really am and discovering so much about myself and my world every day. I am my own parent now, full of love and forgiveness. As a young person, I was really good at team sports because I had an older brother with whom I wanted to play. Also, sports gave me positive feelings because I was good at them. But the good feelings don’t last if deep down, one feels worthless. In fact, no matter what one does, if one doesn’t gain a solid sense of self and self-worth, trouble lies ahead. It’s going to be interesting to see who your grandson, who is so much like you, becomes. It sounds like his parents will take a more positive role in his shaping than you with yours. I’m so glad that you and he have each other!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s