My own “Little Red Book”

This post was written while I am enjoying and working  in Tasmania, which hangs under the Australian mainland as its smallest State and like a heart-shaped earring.

My connection with Tasmania is slender in terms of time: I have lived here for only 5 years, the shortest chapter of my life, and yet these five years were the most formative of my life.  I have posted about this elsewhere, but for here and now, just one small sample.  Forgive my reminiscing in this post.

One evening this week I attended a function for the local Dutch community.  At this function I met up with an older man who lived across the road from us when I lived in Tassie.  This reconnection brought back a flood of memories: he was a successful and generous businessman who gave my brother and me our first job as teenagers.  He also asked a couple of our family’s youngsters to mind his younger family whenever he and his wife had an evening engagement.

Library search1It was during one of the first of these evenings that I discovered a small red Pan paperback on this family’s bookshelf.  It was written by a pediatric surgeon and devoted a chapter to each of a goodly list of the conditions of infancy that could be remedied by surgery.

One of the chapters was of immediate and compelling interest to me: it dealt with pyloric stenosis (“PS”), the reason for more early infant surgery than anything else (other than circumcision which of course is purely elective and unnecessary).

In my first 16 years I had been ravenous for a chapter like this.  My parents had made it abundantly clear that they thought it best to tell me almost nothing about the weird scar pattern that was so “front and centre” on me.  Mum and Dad had one book on child health which had one meagre sentence about pyloric stenosis.  On starting high school I discovered “the library”, and several times a year after learning about the cataloguing system I would scan the shelves for any book that would help me to understand anything about PS or scars or surgery or abdominal anatomy and complaints.  There were some more passing comments in the encyclopedias, but I learnt nothing really new.

My “little red book” became required reading every time I babysat.  I found a copy of this book in one of the city bookstores but foolishly decided it wasn’t worth a good part of my very small savings – after all, I could reread the chapter of interest so close to home and any time I was in the city!  Sadly now, I have never been able to find another copy…

This one chapter told me so much more than I had ever known: the symptoms of PS, the condition’s obvious effects on the baby and the parents, the diagnosis and the surgical procedure, and what could be expected during the recovery period.  I read and reread that chapter countless times: this became a ritual, but more than that, it engraved the basic information about PS indelibly into my memory.

Book search2During my first five decades I learnt little more of any significance about PS.  It was when I gained access to the internet in the later 1990s that my knowledge really took off.  The last 15 years have also made me aware of what my “little red book” never told me – or I suspect could tell me.  The problems that have dogged me because of my PS history would not be managed by growing my knowledge of the condition and its treatment.  There was another dimension.

In the 1960s, the medical world knew little or nothing about the somatic (body’s) memory of pain and deprivation in early infancy, or about the long-term effects of this, including the possibility of post-traumatic stress.  Medical-land was unable or unwilling to consider (let alone discuss with the patients of pediatric patients) even the possibility of babies being affected by surgery without anesthesia, and by being quarantined from their mothers to fight infection.  Besides this, in most Western countries many surgeons were becoming increasingly addicted to the wonders and kudos of surgery as effectively the only treatment for infant PS, and again, would never discuss treatment options with parents.

The internet has allowed blogsites like this and web-based discussion forums to share information about experiences, management options, hazards, and the possible outcomes and long-term effects of PS and its treatment.

For me the value of this was kicked off long ago, when my “little red book” was able to tell me what my parents and my paediatrician uncle never would.

8 thoughts on “My own “Little Red Book”

  1. Wendy

    Wow, what a treasure of a book! Did you mention it to this man? This post is not some “reminiscence.” This post communicates a moving story about how a boy coped with a traumatic and invasive early surgery, a boy who had no information about what had happened to him, except a strange scar on his middle. It’s amazing how little the public was privy to medical information before the advent of the Internet. Parents often assumed that their babies were anesthetized before surgery. And yes, while the “little red book” gave you the medical information, it certainly didn’t explain the resulting trauma and post-traumatic stress. Even now, preverbal medical trauma is not accepted by western medicine. The New Traumatology advocates are pioneers. I am hopeful that changes will continue to occur and that one day, pediatricians will talk to parents about the medical treatment of pyloric stenosis as an option. Maybe we’ll even have understood the cause of pyloric stenosis and we’ll be able to prevent it altogether! Thanks for taking us on a trip down Memory Lane.

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Ashamed to say it now, but as a teenager I wouldn’t talk about “my story” to anybody. Everything I read and did at the time was in great privacy. I notice a similar shyness in my older grandchildren but am sure that
      (1) my “fight and flight” mechanism was well-trained towards flight at this time,
      (2) my parents would have been able to help me a great deal if only they had known what we can now understand about child psychology, PTSD, and infant surgery, and
      (3) my self-confidence has been dented by what happened to me in the surgery and as its result.
      As you say, we’re working on the web to reduce the number of people who have to endure what we did. But we are survivors with growing health!

  2. Wendy

    Yes, we are. We’re healthy enough to help others and that’s saying something. And, of course, by helping others, we are helped in return. We have come a long way!

  3. Dean

    Hello Fred, I have my own and a somewhat dark reason or should I say opinion of why PTSD is not given its proper due in this “western” world and some may agree and many may disagree. I believe that PTSD itself is downplayed because the more credence it is given the more the USA and its medical system will validate its authenticity and validity. Why, you might ask? I believe that the more validity they give to this subject, the more the government with have to treat and pay for the repair that PTSD has done to our servicemen and women who have and continue to suffer from this invisible scar that they (the government) themselves have created in the hundreds of thousands of these brave people who have laid their body on the line for this country’s many politically motivated wars! Just think about all the money they won’t pay for visible scars …now just imagine the number of dollars they will have to cough up if they validate PTSD even further. There is is constant and consistent coverup of this illness especially in this, the dominant financial country in the western world. Just take a read at some of the blogs of service men and women who are afraid to admit this problem for fear of having their medical benefits reduced or even worse, cut off… you won’t have to go far. It is a big and powerful wall that has been erected to minimize the existence or more appropriately the severity of this problem… to keep the cost down. It’s monetary… at least that’s what my research shows me. Dean

    1. Wendy Williams

      Very powerful thinking here, Dean. Perhaps that’s why I am having more challenge than I’d anticipated getting my public speaking gigs off the ground. There’s active resistance. There’s a climate of, don’t ask, don’t tell, to borrow a phrase. Here’s a thought: If C-sections result in PTSD for the newborns delivered by emergency operation and separated from the mother (for she’s anesthetized and can’t care for the baby) and the trauma of the infant becomes a more public discussion, perhaps there would be pressure for doctors to do fewer C-section surgeries. (In America, I read recently that 40-50% of births now are by C-section–gotta find that reference). The doctors though would be out of quite a bit of cash. Hmmmm. Time for me to look into some of these darker corners. Recently, when I told a speaking coach the subject of my talks–PTSD, preverbal trauma, which includes my story of surviving infant surgery, she said my topic was powerful–so much so that she herself probably wouldn’t be able to take hearing about it. Hmmmm.

      1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

        Wendy, you know I agree with almost everything here but may I just sound a note of caution? Most Cesarian section births have for many years now been done with epidural anesthesia, which leaves the mother fully “with it” and with her upper body free to welcome and nurse her baby. I don’t think that such births would traumatize the baby: arguably less so than a natural birthing process, in fact.
        The growing number of CS does warrant challenge, but that’s another issue. And you are right: the stats and surveys show that doctors in general seem to love higher levels of “service” and income and find common cause to comply with mothers who like the convenience of “booking the birth” and avoiding the passing pain of natural birthing.

      2. Wendy

        Thanks, Fred, about the C-section epidural clarification! That mothers can greet and nurse their children is great! So very important to get the facts about these important issues and you are so good at this.

  4. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Dean, Australia is among the nations that have usually been included in the USA’s “Coalition of the Willing” and so we also have a steady flow of stories of PTSD caused by combat past and present. But Oz hasn’t usually had compulsory military service, nor a proportionate number involved in the military. So I cannot imagine the effects of so much of the population carrying the scars of military training and warfare and then going back into homes, communities and national life. The stories we read here outside the US would only be the tip of a very big iceberg. Is it any wonder the US has many times the crime, violence and incarceration rates of comparable countries?
    I agree that the US may well be suppressing dealing with PTSD to protect its military “interests” but I am sure the medical industry would also be involved in this code of silence.
    Thanks for your comments. Let’s keep researching this whole area as best we can and publishing what we learn. We all need to know.


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