Caesarian Anesthesia Problems
and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

by Jaye
Copyright © 2001 by Jaye Emrys, all rights reserved

          In 1974, at age 24, I underwent an emergency caesarian after about 24 hours of labor. My son’s head could not pass through my birth passage because it was too large for me. I had been terrified already at the prospect of delivery. My first obstetrician insisted on episiotomy, which triggered nightly nightmares. I changed to one who agreed to do one only if he really believed I would tear.

          When I went into labor, I felt as much confidence in my obstetrician as I had ever felt in any living person.

          After 24 hours of labor, my OB ordered x-rays, and decided to do a caesarian. I had begged him for at least 5 hours prior to that to let me continue in labor, but at this point, he said no. I remember being wheeled into the OR, lifted from the gurney to the operating table, an IV started, and a mask placed over my face. I dimly remember the trach tube being inserted, but felt too tired to do anything about it. Next, a strange voice (not my OB’s) said, “Okay, go ahead,” and I felt three separate cuts being made in my abdomen. I tried to scream but heard only the shushing of the tube in my throat. I tried to arch my back, even wiggle a finger, but was paralyzed. I blacked out while two thoughts screamed in my mind: “Let me remember this so I can tell someone!” And “Don’t let me remember this agony!”

          At some point while I was unconscious, my son was whisked away to the nursery, and I was wheeled to my room. I drifted the night in a Demerol haze, knowing I should want to see my son, but only wanting to sleep, to not-know I had failed at birthing, that most womanly of all tasks. I hadn’t even gotten the anesthesia properly. When my son was finally brought to me the next morning, the feelings roiling in me overwhelmed me. A sort of impersonal love and commitment to his well-being began to take root, but even stronger was the helplessness and fear and rage from the pain, exhaustion, failure and (it sounds inconsequential, but loomed large) disgust at all the fluids of labor. The nurses wanted me to keep my son in the room with me and take complete responsibility for caring for him. But I could barely move. I insisted they keep him in the nursery where the nurses knew what they were doing with him. During my five days in hospital, my husband and mother came twice a day, but the rest of the time I felt abandoned, rejected, abnormal.

          In the five months after bringing my son home, although I cared passionately about his well-being, every time I touched him, I flashed back on the fear and the pain. Every time he nursed, I felt terror. He lost weight because he spat up what he did nurse from me. By the time he was 5 months old, he was below his birth weight.  I had nightmares, crying jags, flashbacks to the labor and the cutting. It was all I could do to be touched by anyone, and I was afraid all the time. That kept happening for about a year.

          I did not know there was counseling available. I was afraid to take my son to the pediatrician because I knew he would say I was a “bad mother.” I finally convinced my husband to offer our son to my in-laws for adoption. Under the care of his grandmother, my son throve and became a healthy boy. I saw him often until I moved to across the country when he was 5 years old, but have only seen him once since -- in 1991. He developed into a young man I am very proud of -- intelligent and industrious. I can’t take credit for that. I wish I could.

          Recently I was talking to a trusted friend about the caesarian, and I suddenly realized that the aftermath symptoms added up to PTSD -- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While surgery is not usually considered a cause of PTSD, no one expects to be awake and paralyzed during it. The moment on the operating table when I tried to cry out, to wiggle that finger and could not was the most helpless, terrified and abandoned one I have ever felt.

          If you have had anything like this happen to you, and think talking about it would help, please join our e-mail list.

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