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  • Writer's pictureChristine MacInnis, LMFT

Help a Family Member Survive Medical Trauma? Now What About You...

Updated: Feb 23, 2022

On April 5, 2016, I survived an 8 hour brain surgery to correct life-threatening bleeding from a ruptured aneurysm or more specifically an Arteriovenous Malformation, or AVM for short. I was born with it and never knew it was there. And I almost killed me. I was told I would probably come out of the surgery needing months of physical rehab and probably have to learn to read again. I remember laughing at the anesthesiologist as he read off all that may happen to me after surgery because I was high as a kite on so many drugs at this point. Through the whole process, from my good friend, who was a nurse at the hospital, telling me the results of my cat scan and how serious it was, to the emergency wailing ride of the ambulance to the hospital that held a neurosurgeon to operate, I was never worried, afraid or concerned. Merely fascinated this was all going on around me. But there was one person who was absolutely terrified at that moment and that was my husband.

He was the one I called when I left the gym feeling like someone had shot me in the head and knew something was seriously wrong. He was the one who rushed to the parking lot as the paramedics arrived and he was also the one who insisted they take me in, even though my vitals were good and I just wanted to go home and lie down, just for precaution. He was the one who held my hand in the waiting room as a I moaned in pain. He was the one who finally got fed up enough about the wait that he called our good friend down from her meeting to check me out and upon seeing, I couldn't talk, got me inside immediately to be treated. He was the one who called my mom who was with my dad having gall bladder surgery, my sister who was just about to get on a plane for Dubai in New York 3000 miles away, my brother and sister in law who just left that morning on a Spring Break trip to Hawaii and asked our friend Maya to take the kids home from school after her shift at the hospital. He was the one who was forced to decide, with no other family available to help him in time, what type surgery I would have that would that would pick my fate. The one that was safer but wouldn't guarantee I was healed and I would have to be monitored for the rest of my life? Or the more risky one that would fix the problem but possibly leave me disabled? He had it SO much harder than me.

But who got all the attention, care and concern? I did. Even though, all I really had to do was lie there and endure pain. At no time was I anxious or scared. I knew the people around me were the best at what they do and were taking care of me. I was on lots of medication and not really with it. But my husband, with only his friend Patrick there to support him, needed to make immediate decisions and then go home and face two young children with so many questions. At this time, I wasn't aware I may not make it through the night until surgery, but he was. And then there were my friends and family members too. My children, who got whisked from school from the very nurse who treated me and did not lie to them in case I died, this same friend who had to be professional through the whole ordeal at the hospital and then calmly talk to my children, my mom who had to be there for my dad's surgery so she couldn't be with us and my sister who had to fly back from New York to California in the middle of her trip, all terrified, worried and unable to control any of it.

Three months later, I was thankfully and gratefully recovering with none of the physical or mental disabilities I was told I would have after surgery. (And yes, I am in awe of this true miracle to this day). So who really needed to be attended to after my medical trauma? Yes, you guessed it- all the people I mentioned above. My husband, my nurse friend Maya, my parents, my siblings and my children all experienced more trauma over the experience than I did. Yet, I was the one constantly checked on, prescribed mood stabilizers, and given talks on how my personality could change post-surgery. Not one person addressed them, their secondary trauma and their obvious needs. Knowing what I know now about the caregivers in a medical trauma, it can cause PTSD, depression, and anxiety for those who were there and had to make critical decisions sometimes, all alone. They are the unsung heroes that get lost in the shuffle of caring for the sick or hurt. This is true even of long term illnesses such as cancer where the needs of the sick outweighs the needs of the caregiver.

How can we help the caregivers, decision makers and trauma holders of medical emergencies?

First, we should be checking in with them even more than the patient. Ask them how they are feeling and provide a break for them if you can.

Second, look for signs of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) if you or a loved one are handling a medical situation for another. These can include exaggerated startle responses, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to the event, distress to trauma related cues, like hearing an ambulance. They can also experience feelings of depression or anxiety manifesting into panic attacks or struggle with sleeping and eating. Also watch for hyper-focus on all things health related too as they try to control what they lost in the traumatic incident. These are all signs that trauma exists in their body.

Third, find a seasoned trauma informed therapist who does a modality to treat trauma and PTSD, such as EMDR, brainspotting, somatic experiencing or TF-CBT(Trauma-focused-Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy). They can provide relief, healing and distance from the event so they can go on with their lives untroubled. This is not an issue that will simply heal on its on with time. Trauma lives in our bodies and manifested in all different maladaptive ways. It carried through our cells and even genetic material and passed down to our off-spring. You want to get that person the support they need right away. Medical emergencies will always exist in our world, but caregivers of the event no longer need to suffer from secondary trauma as a result.

Experienced a medical trauma with a loved one and feel you could use help from a therapist who has been there? Feel free to reach out. I am here to help. Click here to learn more.

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