Medical Trauma

Right before I was given anaesthesia for my ankle surgery, I had a flashback of my c-section. I’ve been through so many traumas in my life, especially terrible assaults, that I often forget to process the trauma of medical procedures and poor treatment by medical professionals. I’ve had a lot of awesome doctors and nurses in my life, but I’ve also had a few awful doctors. I’ve even had an unethical physical therapist assistant (and two counselors). Going back to therapy was hard for me, and I’m still unsure if I’ll ever go to physical therapy again. Because of everything that’s happened, I have a hard time trusting doctors now. Unpacking so much trauma is an overwhelming task. It seems hopelessly exhausting, but I have to try.

My first pediatrician in America scared the hell out of me. My sister had a different doctor who was nice and friendly. I never understood why she was given a different pediatrician when we both went to the same practice and started there at the same time. My doctor was a very serious and stern woman from Germany, and she never smiled. My sister’s doctor was a hilarious and happy guy who loved kids and was always cracking jokes. Every time I went to my doctor, I was scared she’d know I was bad. I didn’t even have a conscious reason why; other parts experienced the abuse, so I was generally unaware. I just always felt scared. She never checked me in a thorough way, so she never saw the scarring. I don’t even know if a pediatrician is supposed to check a child’s genitals, but I guess they’d need a reason to actually look. Although I had UTIs sometimes, I gave no indication of being abused until my mental health issues became more obvious as a teen.

Parts that weren’t aware of the abuse would go to the doctor. We’d feel extreme fear going there, because our lives had been threatened if we told, but not all parts were aware of the threats. Some parts were scared she’d find out and we’d be tortured or killed. But she never checked, and my parents made sure not to leave marks on me around the time of my annual physical. They also never left bruises on my face. My dad was too smart for that. The parts say he would escalate his physical abuse and torture in the winter. They made me wear turtlenecks even though I absolutely hated them. Long sleeves and pants covered up everything. Every winter we have bad flashbacks about being beaten, tied up, and choked. In the summer, he’d put us in a wooden box to torture us instead of the beatings and ropes. Sometimes it got so hot in there I thought I was going to die. I have a ghost part who believed she died. We thought he’d leave us in there to asphyxiate or starve. Now when I’m in a room or car and it gets too warm, I immediately panic and feel trapped. I need airflow. Ok, I just went off on a tangent. Ugh there’s just so many stories, they fight to be heard.

So my first doctor didn’t check me for signs of abuse, but I was afraid of her anyway. She was not someone I could go to for help, even if my DID had allowed it. I got a different pediatrician after we moved when I was 13, and she loved my parents. My mom took the time to chat with her and get to know her. She was much nicer, but I knew she would never believe me. Everyone loved my British parents who were polite, intelligent, and well off. I was the troubled teen who was depressed and started cutting. At 16, I developed PID (pelvic inflammatory disease) from the abuse. My parents made me wait so long to see a doctor that I could barely walk. They knew I was in pain, but they wouldn’t take me until my therapist told them to. The nurse and doctor who saw me that day blamed me. They said I was lying and that I must have had unprotected sex with a boy. I said I hadn’t, but they didn’t believe me. They treated me poorly and made me feel ashamed. When I was 21, I switched from my pediatrician to a doctor I was finally able to talk to.

My self injury escalated and became more dangerous when I was 19 and 20. The flashbacks had started flooding me at 18 when I left my parent’s house. I often cut myself badly and needed stitches. I remember an ER doctor was mad at me as he stitched me up and said horrible things to me about my self injury. It hurt more than I can say. He said I was just making his job harder, and that I was selfish for cutting. It’s basically what my mom said when I was a teen, that I was selfish. Apparently no one cared that I was dying inside and lacked the words to say how bad it was, so cutting was my expression of that. When my pediatrician (the one who loved my parents) asked me why I did that as she removed my stitches, I made a brave decision. I knew I was legally an adult, so I decided to tell her I was in pain because my parents abused me. I thought she would listen. I don’t remember her saying anything in response. A part tells me that she gave me a disapproving look, and said, “your parents wouldn’t do that.” And then neither of us said anything more. I believe that part. She had been my doctor for 7 years, and she wouldn’t even try to hear me. This just added to my already toxic shame.

When I saw a new doctor at 21, I tried to get my records from that pediatrician. I called, but they never sent them to my new doctor. I called again, and they put me on hold for ten minutes, then disconnected me. Finally, my therapist called them because she knew legally they had to give them to me. They told her that they couldn’t find them because my mother had picked up the records in person. My therapist started threatening them with legal action because I was well over 18, and they shouldn’t have given them to her. They finally produced a some photocopies of the basics of my chart, like immunizations and summaries. There were a few pages that astounded me though. At age 15, it had written in the doctor’s handwriting, “seizures?” It also said “family dysfunction?” No one had ever looked into that. I guess they just assumed that was my therapist’s job. We wouldn’t have talked anyway, out of fear. It still bothers me that they didn’t do an assault screening or check me more thoroughly for signs of abuse. How could they ignore the cutting, depression, headaches, anxiety, PID, seizures, etc? All those symptoms seem pretty obvious to me. I know I’m trained in counseling, but you don’t have to be a therapist to recognize those signs of abuse. The system failed me.

In my early 20s, I ended up in the ER and the ICU because of cutting and suicide attempts. The doctors always treated me like shit. If they found me early enough, they’d threaten to pump my stomach if I didn’t chug charcoal. Sometimes it was too late. Once I vomited charcoal all over myself, and they were pissed. An ER doctor told me callously that I might die after I overdosed on Klonopin and opiates. I think she was trying to scare me, but I wasn’t scared. I was just ashamed at how much she hated me. Another time I overdosed, a doctor made things a lot worse. They needed a urine sample. I was still conscious when they put the catheter in, and a part went through a bad flashback. Apparently the male doctor thought it would help to get in my face and scream at me to get a grip, as if that would snap me out of it.

We’ve had a lot of ER trauma, including being restrained and shot with Haldol because an angry child part was out who was scared and wanted to die. We also remember being treated with disdain by nurses and doctors in the ICU after an overdose. They didn’t even know if I’d live, and I vaguely remember a priest near my bed giving me some kind of Catholic blessing or prayer. At least he tried to be nice; he was the only kind human I saw in the ICU for days because the doctors and nurses hated me for trying to commit suicide. There was a nice CNA who seemed to care and cleaned me up when I was doing better on the third day. There have been some nice people, mostly nurses and CNAs. Most doctors hated me, and they usually let me know.

When I had my c-section 4 years ago, it was traumatic even though I had an amazing ObGyn. She was nice, down to earth, and listened to her patients. She was also a great surgeon. Even though I was afraid to have an emergency cesarean, I’m glad she was the one who did it. It was scary though. They woke me up in the middle of the night and told me I had to save my daughter by going through a procedure I feared and didn’t plan for. I didn’t have time to be devastated. They prepped me for surgery, and I was alone. My ex wife wasn’t allowed in the room until later. I was conscious but drugged up. Being drugged is triggering. I had to lie naked on a table surrounded by people with my arms outstretched and strapped down, completely restrained. That’s about as triggering as it gets for me. They give you meds to calm you, otherwise I would’ve been in trouble. I was mostly just worried about my daughter, so it was all a blur.

This surgery on my ankle was similar in that they strapped my arms down and restrained me before I fell asleep. I remember feeling panic, but the drugs were working. I told the scared child parts that we were safe. Shortly after we woke up from surgery, we were struggling to breathe. We were gasping for air, and again this was triggering. The machines were beeping, so I looked and saw my oxygen was at 88%. They gave me my rescue inhaler, and it helped. I’m glad I was still drowsy and out of it, because that was scary too. The nurses were very nice to me and said they’d take care of me. That helped. They gave me more pain meds because they saw the look on my face. I’m sensitive to medical professionals from everything that has happened, so I will always appreciate the ones who are decent. Trauma informed care makes a big difference. I have a primary care doctor who understands my trauma now, and I see more providers that understand how to treat patients with PTSD. Even my dermatologist seems to be trauma informed. It’s a relief and such a difference from the way I was treated in the 90s and early 2000s.

All of this makes me think about the systems in place that are supposed to help kids being abused. Even in 2021, it is lacking. I think it’s because sexual abuse is so horrible and appalling, that people don’t want to believe it happens. Unfortunately 1 in 4 women are sexually abused or assaulted. I saw doctors as a kid who refused to see it as a possibility. They failed to act because of the shame and stigma of sexual abuse. Unfortunately kids get abused in all types of families- it doesn’t matter if the parents are educated or doing well financially. Providers who work with children need to actually pay attention to the signs and symptoms that children will show them even if they can’t speak. I’m not saying they could’ve even helped me, because I have DID. But I know that there are many kids who are abused that might speak up if they had someone to listen and believe them. And in my case, they did emotional harm to me with their shaming and invalidating messages. A doctor, like a therapist, is ethically required to do no harm. That should always be in their minds, buy apparently it isn’t.

I sit here today in pain, with bruises all over my legs, sore tendons and muscles, and stitches that burn and ache. Even though this surgery was a choice, it was still trauma to my body. I’m hoping the pain gets better soon, because it’s exhausting right now. I’m taking care of my body: ice packs, meds, rest when I can… and I also tell the parts that were scared last week in the hospital that we’re ok. I remind them that this time, we had very nice nurses and doctors. Every time we encounter a kind medical professional, it helps heal those internal wounds a little bit more.

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