Pyloric stenosis – untangling the emotional baggage

Another happy birthday and another poignant anniversary of my first and very early brush with death have just passed, and this cast me into a reflective mood.  This was focussed by some delightful time I recently spent with family members.

1940s surgery looked and was different from today's

1940s surgery looked and was different from today’s

As my previous post has recounted, I had pyloric stenosis (or “PS”, a blocked stomach) soon after my birth and escaped death by starvation by having an operation when I was only 10 days old.  I’m sure the trauma affected my mother, and this in turn affected me, added to by the crude way infant surgery was often done until the 1990s, plus the maternal deprivation that was part of 1940s hospital routines and infection control.

If you have had PS and are troubled by ongoing issues you suspect or know are related, you may want to reflect along with me!  A little background will help …

Only in the 1950s did some doctors begin to specialise in pediatric (infant and child) surgery, and only much later still did this and advances in medical technology see the development of anesthetics, anesthetic management and surgical techniques that are safe for infants in their tenderest first two years.  I have posted that Dr J Everett Koop in the USA was an early pioneer in this.

Only in the late 1980s did a few brave people in the U.S. medical community dare to address the commonly believed mantra that “babies don’t feel or remember pain”.  Among them, Drs K J S Anand and P R Hickey explored the facts and then available information and challenged the established beliefs and practices.  The late Dr David Chamberlain wrote articles and books about the infant mind and memory.  And the late Dr Louis Tinnin amongst others developed therapies to help survivors of crude early surgery to recognise, manage and overcome the post-traumatic stress that could result.

In recent years I have been able to connect online with many who have been affected by old-style infant surgery like I was, and I honour and thank those researchers and doctors who have done so much to give us the present safe and usually fairly damage-free ways of treating infants who need early surgery.

Thanks to the work of the above people (and others like them) I can now understand the mysterious, unsettling, embarrassing and scary inner struggles with which I’ve had to live for most of my nearly 70 years.  Only in the last ten years has the light and help given by these heroes and spread via the internet been moving me towards healing and inner emotional peace.

Here are some of the “issues” with which I struggled –

  • People02All my life I have had an overpowering and insatiable obsession with the 10 x 3 cm scar-web on my belly and the operation it represents. I recently posted about this obsession which has troubled me in a list of ways, some private and worrying, some quite public and embarrassing.
  • For the first 20 years I was afraid of hospitals and all my life I have had passive-aggressive problems with medical people and to some extent with anyone in authority.
  • Since the dawning of my self-consciousness I have had a deep “need to know”, to understand in some detail what this strange thing on my belly was and what exactly happened to put it there. When my parents fobbed me off I went to books, libraries and bookshops, and much later there was the internet.
  • I was often upset by visitors’ curiosity about my scar, my parents’ stonewalling whenever I asked them about it and my PS story – while I overheard them talking with visitors about this page in my life!
  • Certain words and seeing certain things were triggers that made my heart jump, made me blush, and funnelled my thinking to that first medical problem and procedure I had. I have posted about some of my triggers recently.
  • Digestion problems seemed to affect me more often than others in my family.
  • It became clear to me that my mind wasn’t as good as my 4 siblings’ was, that I was less well coordinated and confident than they are, and that I was regarded by my parents and others as rather sensitive and easily put on the defensive.

Most of these frustrations were obviously linked with my first illness and surgery, and I came to suspect the last two might well be too, as I found medical reports that linked PS and its surgery (pyloromyotomy) with them.  Very early starvation damages the baby’s developing brain, including intelligence and motor coordination, and PS survivors and their parents frequently report any of quite a list of abdominal complaints, including vomiting, irritable bowels and reflux, confusion over hunger or feeling full, and discomfort to severe pain often suspected as being caused by adhesions that had developed within from the scar.

Many of my posts on this blogsite discuss these matters.  Interested readers can find them by using the “Categories” search box at the upper right of this page.

How did “family time” get me thinking?

  • During a recent reunion I enjoyed with my four siblings, we discussed our gastro-intestinal behaviour – among many other things of course, but yes, we did! We found we had remarkably similar problems with diet, GI problems and necessary food cautions.
    This does not take away my gastric challenges but puts them in a wider context: it is well-known that PS is caused by high gastric acidity and quite often both these have a hereditary element, affecting more than one baby in a family.
    So my mild gastric problems caused my PS and it seems are not its result, nor that of the surgery.
  • I continue to feel confirmed in my observation that compared with what I see of my family’s gene pool, I have reason to believe that my very early days of starvation seem to have somewhat affected my brain development. However, I also recognise that PS survivors are represented on the full range of the emotional, mental and physical spectra!
  • Especially two of my grandchildren have come to remind me very much of some of my own emotional architecture. While happy to do things in public they hate with a passion situations where they feel “exposed”: having their named called out in a school assembly, being asked to pose for a photo.  They are emotionally sensitive, and clearly “people people” but can also be so focussed (or obsessed?) that we wonder if they are at the low end of the autism spectrum.
    Seeing these kids grow up shows me that some of my “issues” seem to have been caused by a combination of some of my personality traits and unhappy (even traumatic) remembered experiences that arose from my PS scar.
  • This leaves the first three items on my list as totally or largely unexplained except by the fact that some others with PS in their past have reported similar signs of trauma: obsessions, sensitivities, passive-aggressiveness especially towards authority, and “triggers”.
    The specialists in medical science, psychiatry and counselling I highlighted above, together with others who have worked on this, are able to tell us that indicators such as the ones I have mentioned are (or can be) symptoms of PTSD. PTSD has been long recognised in a relatively small group of people (usually war veterans) but was usually brushed off as “too bad, be glad, you’re a survivor”.  Only in recent years has PTSD been taken seriously, explored and much better understood, and as a result it is now better managed and treated.

QUANTUM2The coming of the internet has made it possible for people to network and share territory they have in common.  Much that was previously ignored is now shared, explored and explained.  I have learnt so much about my lifelong discomfort with aspects of myself!  I know now that my “secret inner self” is well within the bounds of what is normal after early surgery in a now hopefully bygone age.  I no longer have to worry about being weird or unique.  Others share and understand my pain and yet have lived a pretty normal life, as I have in fact!  I have been carrying the symptoms of mild ptsd, and counselling and therapy could reduce them but will never remove them.

So I can join those of a more outgoing and confident spirit and carry and show my scar with some pride: I am alive today because I’m part of the history of surgery, I’m grateful to God that I was born at a time when I could benefit from this, and I enjoy being part of the community of PS and infant surgery survivors.

And though I have missed out on certain gifts (how I sometimes long for a quick mind and body), I’m also grateful for the gift I have to explain things clearly, simply and patiently, and that in my senior years all this has come together in my blogging and online participation in the interactions of PS survivors.

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2 thoughts on “Pyloric stenosis – untangling the emotional baggage

  1. Wendy

    I, for one, have been saved because of you. Finding you through the internet has been, and still is, one of the most significant inner milestones of my life. I had never before knowingly communicated with someone who had pyloric stenosis. When we met online, I was for the first time able to open up about my experiences as a survivor of infant surgery without anesthesia in a deep and satisfying way. Because of our early conversations, I realized I wasn’t weird and marginal. I realized that another human being felt much the same as I did about many things. While all our experiences were, of course, not the same, so much of what we shared was uncannily similar. Certainly, our PS history bonded us in ways that could never happen with someone else who was not a survivor. I owe a debt of gratitude, not only to Drs. Tinnin, Chamberlain, Anand, Hickey, and Koop, but I owe a great debt to blogger and infant surgery educator and activist, Fred Vanderbom!

    Reply
    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Thank you so much for this warm response to another rather personal post of mine!
      You were not quite the first PS survivor (but the second and the most enduring!) with whom I have had the deeply clarifying and reassuring experience of comparing and exploring our pain and healing after our rather primitive infant surgery (by today’s standards) for pyloric stenosis. And for quite some years now we have been each other’s prime cheerleader as we have blogged to share our journeys with countless people around the world who have also travelled this part of our road. I will always be very grateful for your very significant, treasured and ongoing part in my life!

      Reply

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