Having Surgery Taught Me Bedside Manner

As a patient, I wanted to be heard, trusted, and respected.

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Me and my mom, Boston Harbor 2017

You know how you have those points in your life that even when they were happening, you were aware that something was shifting? 

Yeah, this is one of those. 

When I was 17 years old, I was laid up for a week with low abdominal pain. As an athlete, having pain that I wasn’t aware how to work through was weird for me and nothing I did made it go away. In fact, it kept getting worse. In a moment of desperation, my sister took me to the ER. 

Within moments, I was accused of being pregnant and lying about my virginity. The nurses rolled their eyes at me and the doctors flat out ignored me. In their minds, I was simply waiting for an ultrasound to prove their assumptions – I was having an ectopic pregnancy. 

My frustration at this moment filled my whole body. I knew that they wouldn’t find what they were looking for which meant, in my mind, that they weren’t any closer to helping me. I learned that when I was in the role of carer, I would listen to my patients. 

Finally, I was sent for the ultrasound – and then promptly rushed to the hospital. It turned out that I had a massive ovarian cyst that was in danger of bursting. When I arrived at the hospital, I was sent to a room to wait until enough hours passed between my last meal and anesthesia. It was the eve of my 17th birthday. 

The next morning, as I was being wheeling into the operating room, the doctor nonchalantly informed me that if I hadn’t made it to the hospital when I did, I would have probably died from sepsis. Happy Birthday kid. Welcome to 17. There was no explanation. No need to tell me. He was just making conversation and he scared me half to death. I learned that not all information is necessary to share. I decided even then, that when I had patients, I would be honest with them but not scare them when it wasn’t needed. 

All that being said, I was thrilled to be getting the surgery. I knew that something was wrong and I was happy to be having it removed. I was so focused the relief that I would feel after they were through. 

Here’s what I didn’t realize. I didn’t realize, and wasn’t told, that while surgery would deal with the cause of my current pain, it would create a whole set of new pains that I would have to work hard to get through. 

I didn’t know that the flat stomach I cherished and worked so hard for would be sliced open and the scar tissue that remained would mean that I would never go back to my old shape. I was blissfully unaware that the scar would create tightness through the whole front of my body that no amount of yoga would budge. 

I didn’t know that surgery was trauma. 

I didn’t know that I would fear pain in my low abdomen for years to come. Not because I was afraid of a cyst, but because I was afraid of surgery. 

These things taught me to guide my patients through expectations, to share possibilities and to focus on the complimentary things that they could do to shorten their healing time.

The other big lesson that I learned during this whole fiasco was one of my most valuable lessons to date. This lesson helped shape the course of my studies and was my first hands on experience of the mind body connection. And it came from my mother. 

I was having a bout of post surgical pain while at a post op check up at the gynecologists office. I had fainted there once or twice before, so I was nervous and in pain – double whammy. I was laying, waiting for the doctor to come in and my mother instructed me to slow my breathing down for 10 full breaths. We counted together. 

What I felt when I finished shocked me. Not only was my pain down to a manageable amount but I was calm, my fear had subsided. I didn’t know where to file this information. I was about to enter my senior year of high school. My studies had always been focused on the sciences and nothing I had encountered up until that point could explain this. 

I know now how many studies there have been that show breath and meditation to be our cheapest, most reliable self care tricks – but at the time, it felt like sorcery to me. What a gift my mother gave me that day. 

The lack of trust from practitioner to patient and the lack of clear explanations of expectations are still things that need to be fixed in our medical system today, more than 18 years after that surgery. They are some of the gaps that need to be filled, some of the holes that need to be mended. 

The utter lack of acceptance that our mind and body are connected is the cause of a multitude of other gaps that need to be filled. 

So, where do we start? 

With stillness and slow, deep breaths. 

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