- My son, Charlie, was admitted to the hospital with RSV and pneumonia.
- His stay lasted weeks, and he was sometimes restrained to be poked and examined.
- These intrusions saved his life but also left him with medical trauma.
“Don’t worry,” the nurse assured me as I stood beside my son, Charlie, in his hospital crib. “He’s so young, he won’t remember any of this.”
I raised an eyebrow at the nurse. I knew that even if Charlie could not remember the specifics of his experience, his body would recall the pain, perhaps even for years to come.
Charlie had been admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit for RSV and pneumonia. Over the weeks he was there, he’d been restrained against his will, poked and prodded with needles and tubes pushed through his nostrils and down his throat. He was held down against his will to complete these interventions. Eventually, he was sedated, breathing with the help of supplemental oxygen, unable to consume food or drink by mouth.
The intrusions would save his life. They would also leave him with hospital trauma.
He started screaming and crying every time we went to the doctor
Charlie’s encounter with medicine was “too much, too fast, too soon” — descriptors that characterize most traumatic experiences.
When many think of trauma, they do not consider something that resulted in a person’s ultimate good. Charlie’s hospitalization saved his life, after all. But even experiences that are necessary or beneficial can be registered in a person’s body as traumatic.
I saw the effects of Charlie’s trauma during our first follow-up appointment at the hospital after discharge. His body language changed from relaxed to tense immediately upon approaching the building.
By the time we were directed to an exam room, he was screaming and crying. He tugged at my clothes and pulled my hair. He begged me to save him from what he remembered was a dangerous environment.
As doctors and nurses entered the room to talk to us, he attacked them by pulling random objects out of my purse — a pen, some lip gloss, my wallet — to throw and use as weapons against the people he perceived as having hurt him in the past.
Though future medical appointments would not be as intense as that first appointment post-discharge, Charlie continues to appear triggered in most medical settings.
As the US is experiencing a pediatric hospital surge so early in the season due to RSV, hospital trauma is, unfortunately, something many parents may soon be navigating.
Here are some ways I’ve helped Charlie process his traumatic experience.
We use narration
Placing a traumatic event within a narrative structure can be healing for anyone processing painful past events. It is unsettling to believe in a world that is random and without meaning. By giving Charlie language to describe his life experience — a plot with cause and effect, and ultimately, a happy ending — he can have a framework for understanding the fear and pain he suffered in the hospital.
I narrate this experience for Charlie in the same way I would tell him other stories or read books to him during the day. I may say something like, “One day, Charlie, you got very sick and you had to go to the hospital. You were scared and in pain, but you were so brave. Mommy and daddy were right beside you. You started feeling better, and you were able to leave the hospital. Now you’re home and well. Your body is so strong, and you are so courageous.”
This practice of narration both validates Charlie’s emotions and serves as a sort of exposure therapy, one of the primary therapies for processing traumatic events.
We do breathing exercises
“Breathe through your nose like you’re smelling a flower,” I instruct Charlie as I pull out a thermometer to take his temperature. “Now breathe out of your mouth like you’re a dragon.” I follow my own directions as a model for him to imitate. Research shows that mindfulness exercises, like deep breathing, can reduce PTSD symptoms.
After several rounds of basic breathwork, Charlie’s posture will often soften into my lap. Rather than the thermometer triggering his fight-or-flight response, I am able to see if he has a fever without it turning into a stressful experience for both of us.
My goal as I help Charlie navigate triggers related to his hospital trauma is not to ignore or dismiss his experience. Ultimately, I want Charlie to know that he is safe to be in his body.
Anna Rollins is currently working on a memoir about embodiment and spirituality.