Overcoming childhood medical trauma with the help of Dr.House
©Myst / Adobe Stock
Overcoming childhood medical trauma with the help of Dr.House
Here’s one thing about me: I love med dramas. Here’s another thing: being in the hospital all the time traumatized me as a child. Yeah, doesn’t make much sense to me, either. Then again, people will watch movies where killers lurk in the shadows of haunted houses. By watching these shows that could potentially be disturbing to me, though, I accidentally healed most of this trauma I’ve had for my entire life. And people say binge-watching is a waste of time!
I basically was a hospital child straight from the womb. My first surgery was a laminectomy at 18 months. Though I was too young to remember it, my mom says that was when my severe anxiety began. My two biggest surgeries, though, I do remember. Getting two steel rods put in my back at age 5 and a C-1/C-2 fusion a couple of months later. In addition, my childhood was filled with doctor’s visits, different kinds of medical tests, x-rays, and MRIs. The machines were big and loud in the cold, white rooms. Underneath me, the tables pressed against my bones, the thin and starchy pillows barely comfortable. The air smelled heavily of disinfectant. I was being poked and prodded with tubes and needles in just about every body part (except my eyes). And I hardly understood what was happening to me.
When I wasn’t a patient, I would have recurring nightmares about being stuck in a hospital somehow and would get chills and feel sick to my stomach every time I entered one, even if I was just visiting someone. And I admit, I occasionally tried to get out of science class when we were studying human anatomy. Now, I’m no psychiatrist, but I took AP psychology in high school. If I’m not mistaken, those are symptoms of PTSD. Then again, I consult Dr. Google more often than I should since you have to jump through hoops and ride a unicycle while balancing spinning plates on your head to get an appointment in Georgia.
Anyway, I digress. When I was growing up, any kind of med show, reality or fictional, was scary for me. Granted, I wouldn’t say that very many of them are child-friendly. But even the most un-graphic scenes would make me turn away and if I caught something I didn’t want to see, I might not have slept very well that night. House was one show that particularly freaked me out, which is funny because that was the first one I started willingly watching.
What happened? I was a teenager, developing into my cynical sense of humor and becoming less afraid of the more morbid side of things. My dad discovered House reruns and absolutely loved them, so guess how I spent the summer before senior year of high school? It was the super-dry humor that drew me in. For some reason, I find ridiculously terrible bedside manner hilarious in a tv show. In addition, I was old enough to understand the storylines and relate to the characters. The surgery scenes were something I eventually got used to.
The next year, I had another operation. It was 7 years ago and I was doped up with meds, so my memory of it is a little foggy, but I do remember that it was more traumatizing for my mom than it was for me. While she hated that I was in so much discomfort, I was able to shrug off all the terrible things quickly, making sarcastic jokes before even leaving the hospital. I didn’t link my chillness with watching House for an entire summer, but looking back, I think it did a little something. But I still hated hospitals.
Over the next few years, I watched Untold Stories of the ER (which I know is technically real, but it’s still dramatized). Some of the stories were so ridiculous, it was so entertaining. And having real doctors tell them started to make me see them as regular individuals instead of these scary people in scrubs. If a random show just happened to be on tv as background noise, I watched with morbid curiosity. And I also got particularly into The Good Doctor, which I know has some controversy, but I personally find the characters extremely relatable. And seriously, their hospital is so sleek, I’m actually jealous!
After a few doctor’s appointments, some of them with those big machines, I realized that I was no longer anxious when I went because I was thinking about those shows. When the pandemic hit, I was worried that seeing all the PPE would be triggering, so I began watching The Resident with the intention of getting myself more comfortable with medical masks. Overcoming childhood medical trauma wasn’t easy for me, but what these shows did for me was allow me to confront my trauma in an environment I can control. I’m usually in my room, sometimes with a good-smelling candle, and my dog comes to check on me.
A lot of YouTube doctors point out all the inaccuracies, but if they were too realistic, I wouldn’t sleep well that night. Seriously, I still can’t watch medical documentaries. And for some reason, there’s something about having all these characters with a crap ton of baggage that could make Louis Vuitton jealous that I like, since I also carry a crap ton of baggage. Seeing them have real lives is like when you’re a kid and you see your teacher outside of school for the first time. Just like how you realize a classroom is just a place they work at, the hospital is the same for doctors and nurses.
Another aspect that helps me also points out what’s wrong with the patient/doctor relationship, or at least in my experience. Now, I feel like I know what goes on behind the scenes, what happens when I’m knocked out. One thing I see frequently is having the doctor stand at the foot of the bed and explain step by step how the procedure is going to be done. I wish mine did that. To this day, I have no clue what exactly was done to me during any of my surgeries and why. Granted, most of them were when I was a young child and it’s hard to explain complex things to someone at that age, but I would’ve appreciated someone taking me through it in a way I would’ve understood instead of just trying to keep me calm to get the procedure done and over with.
Obviously, as I mentioned before, these shows aren’t kid-friendly, but I feel like they’re great for desensitization. For many of us, our medical trauma started in childhood. There are several programs, like Doc McStuffins, that explain what doctors do in a way a young child would understand, but they’re not realistic. The hospital scenes in what I grew up with are bright and animated. So even if I watched an entire cartoon set in a doctor’s office, it was still completely different from what I experienced in real life. What I would like to see is a medical show that’s like the one aimed at adults, but geared towards children. I think for those who spend a lot of time growing up in the hospital, it could potentially provide so many benefits.
But my trauma still isn’t totally cured. Sometimes, a scene might be a little much for me, but then it’s over. I still get the occasional anxious flashback, though now my way to cope is to pull up Hulu and watch an episode or two. Compared to several years ago, I’m far less nervous in hospitals. I no longer get chills and sick to my stomach when I enter one, I no longer have recurring nightmares. My previous experiences and my synesthesia, in fact, make the shows much more immersive because I can not only see and hear what’s going on but also feel and smell, which I think is really cool. There’s one thing that hasn’t changed, though. If you come at me with a needle, I’ll be a big baby and pass right the crap out.
August Pritchett is a disability advocate, a young adult historical fiction writer, obsessed with the 19th and early 20th centuries.