If you’ve had open heart surgery, you’ve been through medical trauma. I was born with the congenital heart defect tetralogy of Fallot; I had my first surgery at 8 days old, and then my first open heart surgery when I was 8 months old. I was too young to remember, but it was the first time I experienced medical trauma.
Because of my condition, I had another open heart surgery last summer to replace my pulmonary valve. This procedure was sooner than expected, but still necessary. While my time in the hospital was short, and my recovery process was a breeze, it doesn’t mean that I did not experience trauma for a second time.
I have a bad habit of bottling things up and hiding what is really going on. The truth is, I have traumatic responses to things that are minor. Any time my heart rate increases or decreases, or I feel any kind of discomfort, my initial reaction is that something is wrong and I need to go to the ER. This causes major anxiety and my symptoms get worse, which increases my anxiety again, and then turns into a cycle.
For the past 13 months, I have been trying to convince myself and everyone else that I’m fine, and that my surgery wasn’t a big deal because everything went so well. It has taken me a long time to admit that I’m traumatized by what my body has been through. I have been told that I am allowed to feel traumatized, but I have been struggling with doing so.
To be completely honest, I feel like I don’t deserve to feel traumatized because I survived and am healthy. I did not spend weeks in the hospital, my parents have not had to watch me suffer, and I do not have major complications due to my heart defect. Guilt is what has been holding me back from allowing myself to feel traumatized.
I work in a well-known children’s hospital in Memphis, and encounter sick children and their families often. Most of my encounters are with the patients’ family and friends. It is hard not to be reminded of my time spent there and being in their shoes. Parents will sometimes share the status of their children with me, and the guilt will surface. I put a smile on my face and tell them they are in excellent hands, while on the inside I feel guilty for being healthy enough to be a survivor having that conversation with them.
The guilt that I have been feeling has not been overwhelming. There are many days where I am incredibly thankful to be a survivor of a congenital heart defect. I am slowly changing my mindset to let my thankfulness override the guilt. My goal is to be a patient advocate and be an encouraging example that life with congenital heart disease can be turned into something positive.
I am so thankful to be surrounded by people who listen to my concerns and can assure me that I am OK. I have resources that are helping me overcome the trauma and feelings of guilt. I am here to say that if you’re struggling because of medical trauma, you are not alone. It’s normal to have traumatic response. Your doctors will not think you are crazy by addressing your concerns. It is OK to admit that you are traumatized by what your body has been through. I hope I can provide encouragement to those who are afraid to speak up. I hear you, and I am with you.
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