Surgery PTSD: Trading one trauma for another


I had my gallbladder removed laparoscopically this past September. They said I had one stone as big as a ping-pong ball and a bunch of little stones in there with it. Essentially, they pulled a full dice bag out through my belly button. Even though I was out for the whole procedure, I still have nightmares and flashbacks of my time in the hospital, to the point where I can remember the smell of the room, the sounds and the tinny resonance of voices because of all the white noise and beeps from the small army of machines they had in there.

The smell was the worst. Antiseptic, sweet (but the wrong kind that sticks in the back of your throat), tacky and dead. It was cold in there. The slab was in the rough shape of a human body. I think I would have been more comforted if it was rectangular and shapeless like most beds. This had arms that ran out from either side and a head cradle. The lights were weird. Instead of bulbs alone, each light source had something that looked like a tiny mirror so it was bright and dull at the same time, making everything look white and blue. Everything was white and blue, even the staff. Little wisps of hair peeked out from the caps around their temples. The spot of hair you can never get fully into a wig or cap. It was the only color aside from their skin tones that I saw.

I walked to the OR. I felt like I was walking to the gallows. Most of my life I’ve had a deep fear of doctors, blood and needles, and after my father’s death it exploded into a full-on phobia. If I can keep away from any of that, I do. I skip doctor visits, put off vaccine updates, opt for pills or bandages instead of injections. If I can heal it myself, I will, even if it means a scar or long term lingering effects. I do whatever I can to keep out of the doctor’s office and having surgery feels like…death. Or worse.
When I was 18 I had a cyst on the end of my spine which made it misery to sit down or lie on my back. I went to the doctor to get treatment and was told it was just a bruise and to take some ibuprofen, which I did. Days later, I was strapped face down on a gurney with an IV in my arm and my skin being sliced open with scalpels and needles. They said they had given me a local to knock me out. It didn’t work. They gave me more. It didn’t work. And more and more until my blood pressure was so low that they could have killed me. I could still feel the cutting and slicing and stabbing. Surgery without painkillers, without anything to make me black out. I lived, awake and screaming, through the whole thing for upwards of an hour. I don’t know why they didn’t stop when I begged them to at the beginning. I even said, “I’m not out yet,” many times before they started butchering me. Needless to say this did not help my phobia of all things medical.

When I was told I needed my gallbladder out because of stones back in 2008, I refused. It wasn’t life threatening and I didn’t have most of the symptoms of gallbladder disease that would put me at crisis level. For the next seven years the list of what I could eat got shorter and shorter. The times when my gallbladder would go into acute crisis were extraordinarily painful. When your gallbladder tries to empty out to aid with digestion, it squeezes to pour the bile into the ducts that carry it to your stomach. If there are stones in there, they can block the entrance and prevent the bile from leaving. There’s also the possibility of having the bile backwash from the stomach back into the bladder. This can happen from 4 to 6 hours at a time, usually at night when you’re trying to sleep, and feels like a sword being driven through your back and turned like a pig on a spit. At the same time, gas swells in your stomach and pushes it so it extends out and acid flows back and forth, causing nausea. Sometimes there is a sensation of barbed wire inside you, twisting. All this happens for 4 to 6 hours. (I know I said that already but it bears repeating.) I dealt with this on a weekly basis for 7 years. Some weeks were better than others. There were a few months where it didn’t bother me at all! This was short lived. Toward the end, I was in pain every day. After it was out I realized that I had actually been in pain every day for 7 years and just got used to it. You’d think getting it removed would be a cause for celebration, and for a while it was! I was looking forward to the promises:

  • Eat what you want
  • No more pain
  • No worrying about food
  • No worrying about the organ going sceptic

Often I do enjoy being free from worrying if the next bite will keep me up all night, but the trauma from the surgery still haunts me. The painkillers they gave me made me hallucinate and gave me nightmares. I stopped taking them but I still have the barrage of grisly images when I close my eyes. Some nights I wake up thrashing or screaming because I’ve seen my fingers blended when making a smoothie, or cutting off my cats legs when I’m supposed to be cutting vegetables. One night recently I had a dream that I left scissors in bed and my husband was stabbed by them. I could actually smell the blood even after I woke up. I started pressing on him, tossing the sheets, looking for the wound and he woke up, asking “What are you doing? Stop!”

“I’m trying to stop the bleeding!” I sobbed wearily, “you’ll bleed out!”

“Hon, you’re dreaming. Stop.” He had to grab my wrist to wake me up fully. I didn’t go back to sleep for almost an hour after that.

Getting back to my old self has been hard. The physical pain has been enough of a problem, even though my doctor said I was healing very well and the scars are going down. He did a hell of a job considering the size of the problem, but the mental trauma is still crippling. My therapist is helping me through it. I still refuse to get my flu shot, more willing to put up with the actual flu than get stuck. Injections, no matter how much I relax, hurt for a week after I get them. The tetanus shots I need every 10 years hurt for almost 3 weeks afterwards and includes nausea and dizziness, but I’ve seen what happens if I don’t get it, and it’s worse. That will land me in the hospital.

For most people, phobias are of heights or bugs or something that can be avoided. If you fear flying you can take a train or a car. If you fear dogs you can live in a pet free building or work from home. You can’t avoid the doctor if you want to life a long life, and sometimes you don’t have a say if social services gets involved. The hospital is also the last stop for many people. Unless you die right away in an accident, emergency services will take you to the, you guessed it, hospital to try to save your life.

Continued exposure to this kind of phobia has shown no progress in desensitizing me. In fact, the more exposure I get, the more afraid I become. I guess I’m glad to have the organ out, but I think the cure is worse than the disease, at least for now. To be honest, aside from the food thing, there is not much difference in my life. I just ended up trading one form of trauma for another.

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