Medical trauma (causes, treatments and prevention)

As a newborn baby, I underwent open heart surgery without guaranteeing that I would survive. The hospital brought in a priest to baptise me and the family was asked to come in to be by my parent’s side. If I survived, my parents were told that I would need multiple heart operations (ongoing for the rest of my life). My life span wasn’t guaranteed nor was my quality of life. I not only survived that first open heart surgery, but I also survived a couple more. In what turned out to be a miracle (yes the specialists called me a “miracle baby”), I never required another operation after those first few that I had. I have since been able to live a healthy and active life as an adult.

Me at 37 years old with my son when he was a newborn

I have surpassed all key milestones and have been active, lived a great life and even carried my first baby and delivered him healthy when I was at the ripe old age of 37 years. Even though the operations were a great success, I did develop medical trauma. This included anxiety around future hospital visits, fear of medical procedures such as blood tests and shutting down at my cardiologist appointments and not wanting to engage in having ongoing checkups. After working through my medical trauma, I now look forward to seeing my cardiologist and we have a plan of action to minimise anxiety around any future medical procedures.

What is medical trauma?

Although it is not a commonly known term, medical trauma is a phenomenon that deserves the attention of mental and physical healthcare professionals. Trauma can come as a result of surgery or multiple medical procedures. Even hospital stays can have lasting effects on our minds and emotions. Throughout most of my life, I would feel nausea and anxiety when walking into a hospital, even if I was there to visit someone else and not the patient myself. This was a result of the first few years of my life which included lengthy hospital stays, poking and prodding my body with countless needles and dramatic open heart surgery. Even though I was a child at the time, my body remembers all of it.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network explains it like this:

Pediatric medical traumatic stress refers to a set of psychological and physiological responses of children and their families to pain, injury, serious illness, medical procedures, and invasive or frightening treatment experiences. Medical trauma may occur as a response to a single or multiple medical events.

There are ways to know if you or someone you know is experiencing this. The Psychology Today website gives 4 points to look out for:

  • Avoidance: Not making eye contact with medical professionals, skipping medical appointments (or attempting to skip them), not wanting to talk or think about anything related to the medical condition or care, avoiding treatments.
  • Re-experiencing: Flashbacks about the diagnosis or injury event or a part of medical care, thoughts about the medical condition popping up suddenly, repeated conservations about the medical conditions/care, thoughts repeating over and over again, acting out parts of medical care in play or drawing pictures.
  • Hyper-arousal: Jumpiness, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, elevated blood pressure.
  • Changes in mood/cognition: Increased overall depression or anxiety, increased negative thoughts, increased thoughts or feelings that the world is unsafe.

What do I do about medical trauma?

The Psychology Today website states:

If you’ve noticed symptoms of medical trauma in your child or yourself, start with talking with your or your child’s doctor. The doctor can help you decide whether you can start trying some strategies to address the symptoms on your own or whether you or your child may benefit from support from a mental health provider. Mental health treatments such as cognitive-behavioural therapy or trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly helpful.

Self-care is also really helpful in aiding in your recovery. Self-care options could look like this:

Exercise: This is always a good way to treat medical trauma as exercise can reduce the anxiety we have about the surgery or medical intervention. Of course, you would need to be cleared by a doctor to ensure any exercise you do is safe.

Sleep: The benefits of sleep in reducing anxiety around medical trauma are amazing. Having the right amount of sleep allows our minds to restore. It helps us think clearer and process the trauma better. If we have very little sleep, then it will just make the effects of medical trauma worse, because we are not able to calm down our nervous system as easily.

Relaxation techniques: Learning deep breathing exercises or meditation helps us to feel relaxed. When we have experienced a medical trauma, our anxiety is through the roof. Panic attacks and anxiety can appear more frequently if we don’t learn to feel grounded and relaxed. When our breath is short and panicked it stops oxygen from getting to our brain causing even further anxiety. TTaking a deep breath in and then blowing out through pursed lips is a way to quickly feel a sense of calm and relieve tension. If you are entering a doctor’s appointment and feel anxiety about it, try this breathing exercise in the waiting room. It will help the appointment go much smoother!

Many who experience medical trauma (as a child or adult) have no idea that their mental health is affected by it. The effects could include developing PTSD, anxiety and depression. If you think you are dealing with any of these, please seek professional mental health assistance today. There is nothing wrong with going through a medical trauma and experiencing these side effects. More often than not people who do experience this, however, feel that it’s just something that they need to live with or get over. That is not the case. No one should have to live with anxiety every time they walk into a hospital or doctor’s surgery.

How to prepare for future medical experiences

I recently had a medically required c-section delivery with my baby. Even though I was very excited to birth my baby and meet him for the first time, in the room I experienced a severe medical trauma response. I had spoken previously with my obstetrician and cardiologist about it and thankfully they had a plan. The scene that I had to experience with multiple medical staff in the room and lots of surgical equipment, combined with the memory of past surgeries, was really hard to deal with. Although the operation of having a c-section was not long (roughly 15 minutes), I completely panicked. I was fine for the first little while, but towards the end I had a panic attack and it felt like I struggled to breathe (a common symptom of a panic attack).

Unfortunately, all of this was due to the many doctor appointments, hospital stays and surgeries that I have had in the past. I’m thankful that if I ever have another baby and deliver in the same way, I will have a team looking after me who are well aware of my medical trauma. I received great care and my panic attack and anxiety were helped immensely by professional medical staff who knew my medical history so that I felt safe and secure. I am so grateful to the specialists that helped me during that time. I’m grateful that I was able to meet with them before the surgery to discuss my concerns regarding anxiety around having the c-section.

This is me in hospital after my c-section with my new baby.

Very Well Mind has some helpful tips for preparing for your next surgery if you’ve experienced medical trauma:

Practice advocating for yourself by explaining how you prefer to be treated by a doctor or provider. Insist on being talked through any procedures they may perform. Try preparing for your appointment ahead of time by writing down symptoms you’ve been experiencing and any questions you have that you’d like answered.

Part of trauma is a lack of or loss of control, and gathering more information can help you take a bit of that power back. The same applies to existing doctors. If you feel dismissed after telling them this (or anything, really), it is OK to either tell them or look for a new doctor.

In conclusion, medical trauma is a very real condition experienced by a large number of the population. When going through it, you may feel helpless and out of control. Future medical procedures can feel scary and cause a lot of anxiety. If you seek help now and develop a plan with your medical team it can reduce stress and worry. Doing this can help you feel much calmer about medical procedures and less bound by anxiety.