I spent the first four months of my life in hospital, having undergone life-saving surgery on the day I was born. It was the early 1970s, and my mother was not allowed to stay with me but had to get the head nurse’s approval to visit.
My first home, therefore, was not my parents’ house but a Red Cross clinic specially designed for cleft babies like me.
I can only imagine how stressful this period must have been for my mother. Not only did she have a newborn in hospital and a three-year-old son at home, but she was also separated from my father who’d left Sweden and his family to pursue a career in the United States.
My visit to a Smile Train clinic in Guatemala last year, where I met a couple of infants who were just about to undergo their first cleft surgery, made me think back to my own infanthood. Although these Guatemalan babies’ time in hospital was limited to five days, they were separated from their mothers for that period – something I found difficult to digest. Not only was it hard for the parents, but I was convinced that even with expert care from a team of doctors and nurses, the babies needed their mothers there.
As for me, I didn’t have a chance to get to know my mother – let alone my absent father – until I was discharged from hospital four months after birth. How, I wonder, did that prolonged separation from my mother affect me then and to what extent does it still have an impact on who I am?
For years, I didn’t consider the possibility that my early childhood experience would leave a lasting imprint in my psyche way into adulthood and I scoffed at any therapist who suggested it, but I’ve since had reason to think again.
For most of my life, it seems, I’ve lived in a state of constant fight or flight mode. When I was very young, I fought the doctors and nurses who continuously invaded my personal (and physical) space; I fought the bullies and un-empathic teachers as well as my parents who I blamed for my sufferings. I learned to step out of my physical body to escape the pain associated with medical intervention, and so on.
Half a lifetime later, the fight or flight mode remains switched on because I don’t know how to turn it off. As a result, I don’t manage stress very well, which most certainly helps to explain the long list of health issues I’ve had to deal with for the past fifteen years.
Although I no longer feel the need to fight for myself as much as I did as a child, I now find myself instinctively fighting on behalf of my children. It’s an exhausting way to live, and I am getting to the point where it’s no longer sustainable. I need to figure out a way to turn off the fight or flight switch.
What do we know about the long-term psychological effects of repeated surgical intervention and prolonged hospital stays in early childhood? My experience tells me there is a definite impact and research suggest that post-surgery trauma can present much in the way that post-traumatic stress does.
In my case, the trauma of surgery and separation from my mother dates back to the day I was born. Although I can’t remember what happened to me or put words to it, the memory of that experience remains firmly lodged in my physical body.
While there’s been some progress in the way hospitalised children are treated since I was little – often, parents are now allowed to stay with their children – I believe there’s room for improvement.
Doctors and nurses need to be more sensitive to the psychological impact that medical intervention has on infants and young children.
It’s simply not true that very young patients won’t remember the experience and not be affected by it in the long-run. For while they may not be able to verbalise the traumatic experience of surgery, their bodies remember.