Recognising and treating the pain of long-ago infant surgery

Early this year saw the passing of someone I have never met but whose work has formed a very important landmark in my life, one I would not like to do without.

Dr Louis Tinnin

Dr Louis Tinnin

Dr Louis Tinnin was an American psychiatrist, therapist, medical school professor and reformer of the care of those affected by mental illness and trauma.  He died of congestive heart failure last February at the age of almost 82 years.  Interested readers can read an obituary online.

In 1992 Lou Tinnin began to research new approaches to the healing of trauma sufferers, and four years later, now retired, he set up the Trauma Recovery Institute (TRI) with his wife Linda Gantt.  This was a clinic based on his findings and new therapies.  In 2006 the TRI was closed and the two set up Intensive Trauma Therapy (ITT), an institute committed to the research of trauma, to its treatment and to training therapists.  Lou and Linda became known as “Ma and Pa Trauma”.

I have posted about Dr Tinnin on this blogsite several times in recent years.  For the countless people like me who have been affected by trauma but are unable to benefit directly from the ITT’s programs, the ITT’s website has been very informative and generous, and it was linked to Dr Lou’s blog – which I’m very grateful is still online.

This blogsite is not a large “read” but is a “must see” for anyone who has had infant surgery, especially if this was before 1990, and if they struggle with mystery symptoms which may have resulted from trauma.

Wendy P Williams is my blogging partner on the effects of infant surgery and the treatment of trauma-caused dis-ease; she has also posted a tribute to Dr Tinnin and it is well-worth reading.

How have I been helped by Dr Tinnin’s work?

Like many others, I developed infant pyloric stenosis (a form of stomach blockage) and had surgery, in my case just 10 days after my birth in 1945.  My parents must have been so traumatised by this that they would never talk about it to me.  Much infant surgery was shockingly crude before the transformational work and writing of Dr K J S Anand in the later 1980s about which I wrote (again) in my previous post.

Anesthetising under 2 year olds was especially hazardous before the advent of current materials and methods, and so doctors were taught and spread the mantra that “babies don’t feel or remember pain”.  It is now known that this rough-and ready surgery is indeed not remembered by the conscious memory, but is recorded as trauma by the sub-conscious or body-memory – in another way and by another part of the brain.

Added to that early operation, I was affected by some 2 weeks of maternal deprivation during the standard recovery period in hospital when mother and babe were kept separated to minimise the risk of infection, and by my growing up with my parents unable or unwilling to help me with my internal turmoil.

How this kind of trauma affects people in their growing and adult years is remarkably typical, and deeply troubling.  I experienced that.  Before the internet made it possible to share stories and compare notes, I and those like me were left to ourselves in isolation, feeling “different”, troubled, even wondering if we were crazy.

1          Dr Louis Tinnin’s blogsite tells of his “search for tell-tale characteristics of adult victims of infant surgery without anesthesia”.  Here at long, long last was a medical doctor who
(a) did not deny the past practice of infant surgery without anesthesia,
(b) described exactly all those troubling feelings and weird hang-ups with which I had struggled for most of my life, and
(c) gave hope: there were therapies, treatments and places where people like me could find a way forward.

2          Dr Louis Tinnin’s blogsite also shows very clearly how he made himself accessible to people like me.  Just look at the 75 comments (to date) below his key post.  His patience, humility and faithfulness in responding to the questions and comments I and others like me had was truly exceptional, in fact unique!  As mentioned in my previous post, in recent years several people have shed valuable light on recovering from old-style and crude infant surgery, but only Lou Tinnin has made himself so available.

Thank you, Lou Tinnin!  We miss you but you have left a legacy that will not be soon forgotten.

2 thoughts on “Recognising and treating the pain of long-ago infant surgery

  1. Wendy

    Thank you, Fred, for the shout out and for the acknowledgment of our special partnership. You put the importance of Dr. Tinnin’s work so well. His work was a life saver. Certainly, he did what no other before had done–made himself available to the community of people suffering from infant surgery without anesthesia. He affirmed our plight and helped us to take our pain seriously. For so long, we survivors of infant surgery without anesthesia were taught to deny that we had any residual problems from the operation. The lack of contact with parents while we recovered was another serious blow. I relate with all your struggles–the torture of the intubation and the surgery itself, the lack of connection with parents during this frightful time, and a childhood in which the trauma was denied. For me, my mother would say how she suffered more than me. At least I had anesthesia (ha!) and didn’t remember. Quite the contrary, dear Mom.
    In my desk drawer, I have a copy of Dr. Tinnin’s comment on his blog to a survivor of unanesthetised infant surgery, Dean: “Although it is true that we do not have verbal memory of infancy, we do have nonverbal memory, which is body memory. We cannot remember it verbally (consciously) and our bodies cannot forget it.” This quote affirms a reality that I often want to forget and need to remember. Dr. Tinnnin’s understanding helped me to trust in and believe in my experience of my trauma. He championed survivors of infant surgery without anesthesia and personally reached out to help us. For these acts, he will always be my hero.

    1. Fred Vanderbom Post author

      Thank you Wendy for these warmly (indeed, passionately) appreciative Comments on the critically important work of the late Dr Lou Tinnin. As usual, your remarks make a valuable additional contribution, so beautifully, perceptively and concisely stated! You and I are a team, increasingly supported and affirmed by others who like you and me who have long struggled with the effects of infant surgery in dark loneliness. Dr Tinnin explored these effects, validated them, and brought them into the public domain. He also was one of a small team, specialist academics, medical professionals, therapists and writers. For me, Dr Tinnin was pre-eminent among them, for the reason you and I have noted. How thankful we are!


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