Medical trauma bubbles to the surface again after a hospitalization

With medical PTSD, it's challenging to return to a hospital setting

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by Lara Govendo |

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A recent hospitalization for appendicitis reminded me too much of frequent hospital stays in the past. As memories infiltrated my thoughts, the traumatic ties to the past bubbled to the surface.

It’s important to name and process our experiences since medical trauma compounds with chronic illness.

Prior to my double-lung transplant six years ago, I was routinely hospitalized. The hospital was my primary residence and I spent more time there than at home. My lungs didn’t have the capacity to fight never-ending respiratory infections.

My cystic fibrosis (CF) came with aggressive lung disease. I fought to breathe from the very first year of my life. I was on oxygen right out of the gate, and the medical staff wasn’t sure if I would make it. My lungs did stabilize, but I continued to battle respiratory illnesses.

When I was 7, I was in the hospital with pneumonia. Not understanding what was happening was scary. I knew only that my X-ray looked cloudy where it was supposed to be clear and that’s what landed me in the hospital. My 7-year-old brain immediately thought about death. I was hypervigilant from a young age as I tried to make sense of it all.

My next hospitalization happened when I was in college. Despite my best efforts to fight the reality of CF lung disease, it always found a way to bring my life to a grinding halt. Taking care of myself wasn’t my top priority; getting my degree and starting a career was. My health reflected this as it drastically declined.

I was hit with a pulmonary embolism and forced out of work in 2016. It was never my plan to be the sick girl. All I wanted was to live a normal life.

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A thing of the past

I was also frequently admitted to the hospital leading up to my transplant. Most weeks when I went to the CF clinic, I knew I could expect the “You should come into the hospital” talk. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stay afloat amid the drowning waters of CF.

In those moments, it felt like I would feel horrible forever. My oxygen-deprived brain couldn’t calibrate beyond the need to survive my next breath. It always felt like a miracle when I’d improve enough to go home.

Post-transplant, it feels so foreign to be hospitalized. When I was admitted recently for my appendix, the memories came flooding back and hit me like a ton of bricks. I was overwhelmed with emotion thinking about how drastically my life has changed for the better.

It also brought flashbacks, traumatic moments from past hospitalizations. Hello PTSD, you’re still there, apparently.

When I’m in the hospital, my body still sends alerts to my brain indicating I’m in the midst of a medical emergency. It comes with an overarching level of anxiety about familiar unknowns. Changing this connection takes time. I have to remind my trauma brain that I’m not in the same place that I was before the transplant.

It’s strange to think that my medical problems now don’t mean imminent danger. But I’m learning to rewire my brain to believe that not every health situation is a dire circumstance. While my appendix was serious, I wasn’t in danger of dying. The mind-body connection after traumatic events has altered how I perceive reality. Knowing that I’m OK versus feeling that I’m OK are two entirely different things.

Trauma is a significant part of my story, but it’s not the whole book. As I continue to recover from complex medical trauma, I’m reminded that gentleness is the path to healing. I’m thankful that my body has survived every storm that should have killed me. Baby steps.

Note: Cystic Fibrosis News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Cystic Fibrosis News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to cystic fibrosis.


Kate avatar


You have written about medical PTSD beautifully. I understand...


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