Early Child Medical Trauma: It’s More Common Than You Think

crying-kid06When my daughter was an infant, my husband I learned that she’d been born with a medical condition that required us to take her to specialists. Over a period of years, various doctors performed invasive procedures on our baby over and over again.

At times, I was enlisted as an assistant and forced to hold my tiny child down on the exam table as medical professionals performed procedures that I can only describe as horrific.

On more than one occasion, I asked the doctor why my child wasn’t processing the experiences that were happening to her as sexual abuse. After all, from where I stood as an observing parent, the procedures looked like sexual abuse. And my child didn’t have the verbal skills to define them in a “medical” category, as opposed to a “sexual assault” category. My baby only knew what she felt–pure and unadulterated terror–an instinctual trauma response.

So why wouldn’t my child–who was traumatized over and over again in a medical setting without having the verbal skills to define her experience–not develop PTSD in the same way a soldier or abuse survivor would?

The truth of the matter is, she did because she had no way to compensate for the “locked in” memories, once the left side of her tiny brain shut down and trapped the experience in the right side of her brain.

The American Psychological Association describes trauma as “an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.” Preverbal and early childhood medical trauma are as real as is adult medical trauma. Someone you know is suffering, and they probably don’t know why.

On June 1st, my new book, cowritten with friend and colleague Wanda Sanchez, Love Letters from the Edge released. This book provides a voice for the tens of thousands of women who suffer–many in isolation and silence–with symptoms produced by trauma. That trauma may stem from medical procedures or treatment like breast cancer. It may be rooted in abuse. It may be related to the heartbreak of long-term caregiving. It may come from the wounds of abandonment. It may have been caused by the whims of natural disaster.

As coauthors, our message to the hurting is simple: You are not alone. Your symptoms make sense. Hope and help are available. And you are relentlessly loved by a merciful and compassionate God.

Who do you know who needs a love letter from God?

Photo Credit: Minnieland.wordpress.com

Someone You Know Has PTSD–and Might Not Know It

“I just finished treatment for complex PTSD. Nobody understands trauma, so I rarely talk about it.”

The woman sitting next to me on our flight from Denver to Seattle was an accountant. Confident. Self-assured. Professional. And a recovering addict who’d struggled for years with symptoms PTSD stemming from early childhood medical procedures.

It had taken her years to recognize that childhood medical procedures were at the root of the long list of symptoms that had taken her life hostage.


Sadly, most people don’t understand the cause-and-effect between trauma and the symptoms of PTSD and seek treatment for the underlying cause.

The reality is that life is a series of traumas that the brain processes as either “Big T” or “little t” events, depending on a number of factors. Any event that is so threatening that it (1) overwhelms our brain, (2) triggers a reactive chemical wash that shuts down one side of the brain and causes us to “freeze” initiates the Instinctual Trauma Response (Big T trauma with potential resulting symptoms).

In the past few years, my colleague Wanda and I have met dozens of men and women suffering from PTSD who never realized before meeting us that trauma was the source of their various symptoms: hoarding, self-abuse, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, hearing voices (one of the easiest symptoms to treat), eating disorders, depression, suicidal fixation, and other symptoms.

Many people who have PTSD don’t know that their symptoms aren’t the problem; trauma is the problem, and trauma can be successfully treated.

This week our book Love Letters from the Edge: Meditations for Those Struggling with Brokenness, Trauma, and the Pain of Life was released in bookstores and online. This book addresses the desperation and despair felt by those who suffer from PTSD. It gives a voice to those who often feel unfixable, hopeless, and isolated.

But more importantly, it offers hope. As women who have experienced PTSD, Wanda and I understand the desperation and the struggles. This is why it was critically important for us to write a book that honestly expressed the feelings of those dealing with PTSD, but also offered compassion, hope, and truth. This book also offers practical resources for family members and friends, as well as support communities, such as churches.

Someone you know has PTSD and may not even know it.

Learn what it feels like to walk in their shoes. Learn what you can do to help. And if you’re struggling, take the first step toward healing by telling a trusted friend or medical or mental health professional.

Crisis Hotlines


PTSD and Caregiving


Last week my ninety-two year-old father fell twice and injured his back. He was placed in the hospital, where doctors ran a series of tests that revealed TIAs and a back fracture. The sad truth is that my father will continue to have TIAs and fall and the next call will be more ominous.

As I raced across state to help make decisions regarding my father’s care, I discovered my symptoms of PTSD from years of caregiving were being retriggered: numbness,  insomnia, anxiety, dread, irritability, and depression.

My husband and I cared for his father with Parkinson’s disease and multiple health issues in our home for five years until just months before his death with COPD in a VA facility. We also cared for my mother with Alzheimer’s in our home and my dad for an additional five years. Those years took an enormous toll.

Unfortunately, little formal research has been done on the effects of PTSD on caregivers. But Barry Jacobs, a clinical psychologist and author of “The Emotional Survival Guide for Caregivers” (The Guilford Press, 2006), often sees caregivers who struggle with intrusive thoughts and memories months and even years after a loved one has died.

The fact that caregiving can take a psychological toll on an individual is no secret. A 2009 study by the National Institutes of Health found that the chronic stress a caregiver can be under – whether from the duration and type of care he or she is providing to a loved one or from dealing with finances and family tensions – can cause significant psychological distress, impaired health habits, psychiatric illness and physical illness.

My husband and I struggled with the tension of making “right” end-of-life decisions for parents who could not talk. It was our responsibility to know when they were in pain, when they were thirsty, when they needed more medication or less, and to protect them. We lived in a constant state of vigilance and concern that our decisions could physically, emotionally, and mentally harm our parent if we were not appropriately informed caregivers and not able to discern their needs.

We lived for ten years in a state of overwhelming stress.

But we were wise enough to put ourselves in counseling, which helped save our marriage and our sanity. But counseling is often not enough. Caregivers may also need to consider trauma treatment, especially if their caregiving experiences are linked to prior trauma experiences in their lives.

If you are a caregiver, be alert to symptoms of PTSD and consider the possibility that you may need treatment.

To receive a free eBook I’ve co-written with colleague Wanda Sanchez on post-traumatic stress disorder, go to PTSDPerspectives.org and click on “The Truth about Trauma.” This eBook provides an overview of PTSD, it’s symptoms, causes, treatments, what people with PTSD feel like, and how friends and family can help.

Stroke, PTSD, and Palliative Care

migraineIt felt like an ice-pick sliced through my brain. I fell to the bed, and when I got up an hour later, my left eye wouldn’t close and my face was drooping.

These are some of the sensations I experienced in 1999 when I experienced a small stroke in conjunction with a brain lesion. I was treated in the neuro-oncology unit of a major medical center for a period of weeks while doctors searched for what they believed would be brain cancer. Over a course of days, I lost my ability to walk, my vision went double, and I was unable to do anything but lie on one side and vomit prolifically.

According to Dr. Donald Edmondson, assistant professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and lead author of a study published in the online journal PLOS ONE:

  • Almost one out of four stroke and mini-stroke patients, and one of eight heart attack victims, will experience PTSD symptoms within a year of the trauma

  • Younger stroke and heart attack patients have greater psychological issues and a higher risk of developing PTSD

  • Nearly one in four women diagnosed with breast cancer report PTSD symptoms shortly after diagnosis

  • PTSD symptoms have also appeared after diagnoses of prostate cancer and lymphoma

Nearly one in four stroke patients will develop significant PTSD symptoms within a year of experiencing medical trauma such as stroke. Those symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, smell and visual triggers. Similar research by Dr. Edmondson has found that as many as one in eight heart attack victims will experience PTSD symptoms within a year.

While doctors treat medical symptoms, they often don’t address the psychological impact often accompanies medical illness. However, palliative care can provide assistance at any level of illness and can be accessed at home or in a health care facility.

Palliative care is medical care provided by physicians, nurses and social workers that specializes in the relief of the pain, symptoms and stress of serious illness.

It treats the whole person medically, emotionally, and spiritually. A palliative care team includes a physician and social worker and is called in at the request of the primary care physician, hospitalist, or nursing home physician. The team consults with family, caregivers and the patient with the goal of improving patient comfort and quality of life. Palliative care social workers may be particularly beneficial in helping patients to deal with the effects of PTSD.

If you or someone you know has experienced a stroke or other serious medical crisis, consult with your physician or social worker about the possibilities of engaging palliative care for the treatment of symptoms of PTSD.

Bringing Hope for PTSD: Why We Can’t Shut Up

This past week my friend and colleague Wanda and I spoke to therapists and administrators at one of Michigan’s top residential treatment centers for children about our experience with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Our story is unique. A desperate woman from the West Coast who’d unknowingly suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder all her life and had been through every imaginable treatment took an unexpected call from a woman from the Midwest who immediately recognized her symptoms as PTSD. The desperate woman is my now-best friend Wanda. The woman who surprised her on the phone that day is me. In one God-appointed call, Wanda and I bonded for life. Weeks later, I was on a plane to the West Coast to meet her. Within months, she and I were at a trauma treatment center that gave her back her life in just ten days.

I knew about this treatment center–Intensive Trauma Therapy (ITT) in Morgantown, West Virginia–because a friend of mine (Jolene Philo, author of A Different Dream for My Child) had taken her son there. He, too, had tried treatment after treatment over the course of his life with no results and was living on the fragile edge of despair. After five days of out-patient treatment, he’d left, free from many of the symptoms of PTSD and able to cope with life for the first time in years. Just a year later, he’d landed his dream job, married, and was delivering lectures in his field of work.

Wanda’s ten-day out-patient treatment at ITT accomplished more than the combined days, weeks, and months she’d spent in a numerous residential and out-patient programs across the nation, as well as years of counseling. A lifetime of symptoms melted away, and she left equipped to deal with the challenges and realities of life.

On day three at ITT, life-long nightmares and rages disappeared. Behaviors, fears, and battles that had been part of her life for as long as she could remember fell away each successive day. And in the time since she’s left ITT, Wanda’s continued to make enormous strides in physical and mental health, as well as in her career and personal life.

One year out from her ten-day treatment at ITT, Wanda’s speaking to counselors and therapists about her experience and delivering hope to PTSD sufferers across the nation. I accompany her as we talk about her journey from despair to hope and healing.  And while her recovery came through a specific treatment model–the Instinctual Trauma Response Model developed by Dr. Louis Tinnen, the founder of ITT–Wanda attributes her ultimate healing to God.

Those suffering from PTSD call us, write us, and seek us out almost every day. The millions who suffer with PTSD in this nation deal with ravaging symptoms and often suffer in silence. Faith communities often see a division between “secular and sacred” and are reluctant to point PTSD sufferers and those who deal with mental illnesses to effective therapies.

But Wanda and I can’t stop talking. We’re overwhelmingly grateful to God for pointing us to the right treatment at the right time to accomplish healing. We can’t point people to ITT fast enough. We know a growing number whose stories were like Wanda’s: people who were living on the ragged edge of despair, were misdiagnosed and sought every available treatment without success.

Most came to ITT as a last resort to suicide. Days later, they left healed and with their hope renewed.

Opportunities continue to open up for Wanda and me to speak to therapists, individuals, churches, educators, and health professionals about hope for healing from post-traumatic stress disorder. We’ll talk about our story and our hope as often as we can. The statistics are simply too staggering, and the realities too stark:

  • 70% of adults have experienced at least one traumatic event in their life–over 223 million people. Over 20% of them will go on to develop PTSD.
  • An estimated 8% of the general population have PTSD right now. That figure jumps to 24% in the inner city.
  • An estimated 1 out of 10 women develop PTSD, compared to 1 out of 20 men.
  • 60-80% of those who experience severe trauma will develop PTSD.
  • 15-43% of girls and 14-43% of boys will experience a traumatic event
  • 3-15% girls and 1-6% of boys will develop PTSD

If you know a faith community, community organization, mental health organization, hospital, educational institution, or group that would like to hear our story of hope, feel free to contact us.

We can’t shut up.