When infant surgery causes ongoing trouble (1) – trauma

How much healing can we expect after traumatic stress resulting from early infant surgery without anesthesia and/or the other benefits modern medical skills allow?  And what’s the best way of healing?

When I had surgery for pyloric stenosis (“PS”) at the age of 10 days in 1945, it traumatised me (sub-consciously, of course) and also my parents (consciously, and in ways that added to my trauma).

Think of it: the medical equipment of the past (such as IV lines and breathing tubes) was not designed for babies until the later 20th century, and infants under 2 years were not usually given general anesthesia for surgical procedures in many places until the last decade of the 20th century.  The literature shows that in 1945 some doctors had the skills and confidence of anesthetise a baby, but that it was often avoided as too complex and hazardous.  It is quite impossible to unearth any statistics today, but it seems that many babies needing surgery before 1990 were bound and intubated (a breathing tube was inserted into their throat), and they were then paralysed to keep them still during “the procedure”.  Some infants were given a sugar cube laced with brandy to suck and help them feel happy, and sometimes the incision area was injected to numb the surface.

Then, after the surgery babies were routinely kept isolated from their mothers for some 2 weeks to reduce the risk of infection.  Many of the wounds associated with infant surgery today look tidy compared with those of yesteryear, when babies’ incisions were sewn up with large stitches like a football.  Sadly, even today some pediatric surgeons seem to have an obviously “macho” attitude to their work.

Even more sadly today, many male babies are still circumcised without any or significant pain relief.  Their immature minds will not remember this, but the sub-conscious pain and shock can be expected to affect them for life with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (“PTSD”).

Dr Louis Tinnin

Dr Louis Tinnin

The US psychologist and therapist Dr Louis Tinnin conducts a center with programs for people struggling with PTSD, and his website includes a blog in which he has very generously made available information for those who may need his programs and an outline of what therapy may involve.  He has also been very kind in his interaction with those who have written responses to his post on pre-1987 infant surgery.

I return to my opening question: How and to what extent can we expect healing after traumatic stress?

We are all different, we find different ways of managing PTSD and we answer the question of healing differently also.  Here are some of the answers I have found…

  1. Many who had PS and other infant conditions treated surgically more than 35 years ago claim they have no continuing problems resulting from trauma.  I feel happy for these hardy people, but also wonder if some of them are denying something.  It is well-known that traumatic events experienced consciously do not affect everybody the same way; perhaps only half will battle with the symptoms of PTSD.
    As for those who have been affected by their early surgery but are not aware of it, knowing what I have learnt from extensive reading I wonder whether some of the anger, violence, and social dysfunction we all experience in and around us is caused by unrecognized and unmanaged PTSD.  This also will be hard to prove, although psychologists and others with trained discernment are often aware of very likely links.  Perhaps “none are as sick as those who believe they don’t need a doctor”.
  2. Among those who recognize the signs of PTSD and are as certain as they can be about its link with the infant surgery they had, there seem to be at least three ways they manage it.
    One approach is to manage it essentially alone: not in isolation but by experimenting with various techniques they discover and follow for themselves.  I count myself and my fellow infant surgery / PTSD blogging friend Wendy in this group.
    Wendy finds that various relaxation and meditation techniques empower her, as well as her reading and writing, art, lecturing and advocacy, and networking.  A look at her blog will give lots of examples of how we can be strong, confident and effective despite struggling with significant for much of our life.
    Like Wendy, I have found reading, writing, and networking helpful, and recognize that my Christian upbringing and faith have been very supportive also.
  3. Dr Kristi Gaultiere

    Dr Kristi Gaultiere

    Embracing the basic Christian truth of God’s acceptance was the breakthrough for Kristi Gaultiere, a counsellor and therapist whose website and story of healing I recently discovered.  I have read similar accounts from fellow Christians – but unlike some, Kristi is very honest and open about the fact that her healing remains a “work in progress”.
    As a long-time Christian pastor I have learnt to be cautious with stories of what I term “aha! healings”!  In my experience it is rare for any therapy, discovery or (religious) experience to wipe out with minimal residue what our mind, emotions and body have lived with for a lifetime.

  4. Therapy programs such as those offered by Drs Tinnin and Gaultiere (above) offer professional skills and a disciplined process to those affected by trauma and other emotionally disabling conditions.  There is often huge benefit in that, but location and cost also make such programs inaccessible to all but a very few.  This is why I so much value Dr Tinnin’s website resources.
  5. It is also known that a knowledgeable, wise and discerning friend or helper can often do as much for us as a psychologist or psychiatrist (provided there are no organic cause for our pain).  I was struck by Kristi Gaultiere’s account of a trusted friend being so vital on her road towards healing.

Therapy gp2There are many degrees of trauma, and that caused by disaster, war, or tragic death can be very deep-seated and life-affecting for some but seems to affect other minimally.  In contrast, PTSD caused by the infant surgery of the past is quite different in one respect: we have no conscious memory of it.  But its effects can be just as deep-seated and life affecting as the ugliest atrocity because its seat is in the long past, not consciously remembered, and triggered at such a formative time of life.

There remains an urgent need for much more research work to be done on this subject area, for infant surgery survivors to network, compare their past and present experiences, and for medical practitioners to become much more aware of and supportive of those who struggle with PTSD after infant surgery and what often happened with it.  Here’s hoping!

In my next post I want to explore the several and often-reported physical side effects of infant PS surgery – and some of the remedies people have found helpful for these.

5 thoughts on “When infant surgery causes ongoing trouble (1) – trauma

  1. wendy williams

    You are certainly part of the “hoping.” You are a force helping we survivors of infant surgery to validate our feelings and experiences regarding this difficult past. You show us that there are many ways of coping and coming to terms with our trauma. For me personally, Dr. Gaultiere’s experience was so moving, for I felt exactly the same way she did–that I was made imperfectly as a newborn with ps and that God didn’t want me to live and that I didn’t deserve to. I too was angry at God for making me wrong. It’s so comforting to finally ‘meet’ someone who felt the way I did. Networking makes all the difference and you, Fred, are key in helping survivors of early surgery to find each other and gain strength from sharing our experiences. Thank you for all the help you offer in this post and in your work as a blogger and health activist.

  2. Fred Vanderbom Post author

    Wendy, thanks so much for these comments. In my post I didn’t want to make the link you did, but knowing you and your story a bit, I also was thrilled to read Dr Gaultiere’s account of how she battled the effects the effects of ps surgery as a baby. This was in part because of the healing she found with the help of a friend’s insights and their shared Christian faith, and just as much because I knew her story would be very significant for you personally.
    Discovering both our commonness and uniqueness in the network of those who have been affected by infant surgery, and seeing others find a place of significance in that family are both very rewarding. This post has again underlined that for us!

  3. Dean

    There is also one of the most powerful and rich lobbies in the world that does about everything that they can to make the problem of PTSD a non-event. And that is… the armed forces… esp here in the USA. I have read story after story of people being summarily discharged from the armed forces if they even mention PTSD. This is possibly one of the largest lobbies in the US… and they don’t want anything to do with the long term and difficult to treat effects of PTSD.
    Also people may not realize that something may be lurking in the unconscious like what happened to me. In my 40’s I had a poorly done back surgery where they cut into my spine by accident… I was in terrible pain and I remember yelling out one night, “They did it to me AGAIN!” I wondered what did I mean by that… years later after the revelation of surgery with little or no anesthesia, that may have been what I was referring to. So I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes it takes another tragic event to unlock the painful memories of the past that we have been able to cope with until it is reawakened by a similarly distressing event.

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Thank you for these Comments, Deon.
      I fully agree with your observation that the Military do what they can to minimize discussion and claims related to PTSD. And not only in the USA: one of my nephews had an experience of this in the Australian Army, and we fairly often get stories about this finding their way into the Australian media.
      In a Comment with my next post I reflect on your Comment about the memories that lurk in our sub-conscious. There is no doubt that your body’s memory of traumatic surgery in your infancy was brought to your fuller awareness by the damage done by surgery to your back: how interesting that you uttered this in words before you had understood the connection! But be assured that discovery + learning + understanding + processing = the road to healing.

      1. Dean

        Thanks Fred …the disreguard of PTSD as a valid military problem was started in thr Regan -Butch era and it only got worse in Butch jr. I feel for allnthe pawns used for these so called men in their quest for more cottol over the worlds oil supply. But i digress.
        I may have another operation coming up and the specter of the previous atrocities on my body by for proffit surgens has me so stymied that i can barely make a decission. But i am doing all my homework just in case…at least it’s made me a more informed consummer. Ha. But i intend to research any and all possable fixes besides surgery because if there is one thing that i have learned in the last year …is that if they will do this to a little defensive-less baby for the sake of expediency … What won’t they do. Ean

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