Recovering from hospital-induced trauma
July 22, 2008 7:17 AM   Subscribe

How do you mentally recover from having been in the hospital, especially when you don't know what was wrong?

My fiance woke me up last week and I couldn't move from the neck down. He called 911 and I was taken to the ER. I was admitted and spent the weekend in the hospital. There was initial uncertainty as to whether I'd had a spinal cord injury so it was emotionally difficult for me and everyone around me as we contemplated my being paralyzed. Three MRIs and an X-ray later, the spinal cord injury was definitively ruled out, and I'm able to move normally again. There is no explanation for what happened, and I was at the best hospital in the city with a large team of neurosurgeons. I'm not looking for speculation as to what happened; I say this to explain my mental state.

Physically, I am OK after all this. Emotionally, though, I am spent. I never felt like I would die, but I was afraid of being paralyzed not for myself but for the life my fiance would have to live, taking care of me. It was likewise difficult to see him so worried and tore up about me. There was also some family drama about who had power of attorney (I signed it over to my fiance since we'll be married in two months anyway).

The MRIs were very difficult for me as well. I'm not claustrophobic but I do have panic disorder and they had to stop one test when I started aspirating on my own vomit. The next day they wanted to run the whole test straight through and it took three hours. I was nearly catatonic afterwards. I still have tinnitus from the noise of the machine and I wake up fearing I'm still inside it. I'm also afraid to go to sleep for fear I'll wake up paralyzed.

What can I do to move on? I want to get "back to normal" but I feel like something's different now. Having no explanation, I fear it might happen again and I'm overreactive to the way my body feels. I've taken time off work, of course, but I will have to go back, and I don't want to talk about the experience. I would just like to forget it ever happened.
posted by desjardins to Health & Fitness (10 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I know this is the rote AskMeFi answer, but I honestly think it's right in this case: investigate therapy. I don't think therapy is a cure for all that ails, but when it comes to things like "What can I do to move on?" a good therapist can be instrumental.
posted by Nelsormensch at 7:40 AM on July 22, 2008

Wow. My heart goes out to you. That said, my advice for what it's worth:

If you can afford it, talking to a therapist is probably a good idea.

You've had something (actually a series of somethings) terrifying happen to you and you may be at risk for PTSD.

The twin elements of uncertainty - Why did it happen? Will it happen again? - and the threat of mortality/disability are especially challenging. A good therapist can give you tools to help you get through particularly anxious times.

A therapist will be able to see your situation more objectively and may even be able to suggest action you can take on the medical front to investigate and address what's going on more thoroughly.

Finding your center again, after something so traumatic, can be difficult. Get as much help as you need to find peace.
posted by pammo at 8:01 AM on July 22, 2008

I'm so sorry you had such a scary experience. A lot of healthcare is rough and brutal. It's perfectly reasonable to feel abused after it's over. You're right in that you need to emotionally, mentally heal from it. You need time to let your emotions recover.

I need to do this when I've had an emotionally complex situation and here's what I do. I focus on current moments so my brain cannot ruminate about the trauma. For example, if I'm washing the dishes, I don't let my mind wander because it will wander to that trauma. I watch how the water and soap looks. I think about how the temperature of the water feels. I listen to the sounds the water makes. I try to smell the clean soap. I try to make it an almost meditative and beautiful experience. If my mind starts to wander I just immediately forgive myself for doing that because it's going to happen, and then redirect my thinking back to whatever task I'm doing.

Basically I'm trying to find joy in life, joy in the littlest things.

Death and illness are scary things to confront. Intellectually we may understand that death and illness are intimately connected to life, that they are a circular part of it all, but it's scary all the same. We approach death and illness as if they are enemies to be fought. And yeah sure, you don't want to invite them over for tea, it helps me to think of death and illness as part of the life I love. They help reaffirm all that is wonderful in life. They help me search for joy in everything while it's available to me.

You're doing the right things so far. You're giving yourself some time away from work to heal. You're right things are different now. Try not to think of that as being so scary. Try to let it be an emotional epiphany for you: you're a little more enlightened now to the complexity that is your life. Good luck and take care.
posted by dog food sugar at 8:01 AM on July 22, 2008 [2 favorites]


It may help you to approach this in 4 non-sequential steps:

Acceptance - For now, you are healthy and well. That's all any of us has; no one of us has a guarantee of continued good health. You just had a huge reminder of how quickly your health can crumble. It's terrifying - the fear of the unknown, of pain and of powerlessness.

Regain control -Today start taking steps to take good care of yourself. If you've been intending to start a workout plan, clean up your nutrition or take some stress reducing yoga classes, then now is the perfect time. Take control of what you can control in ensuring your own health. Also, schedule follow ups for the neurological exams.

Emotions - Talk it out with a counselor or a trusted friend. You need to work through the emotions to be able to release them.

Reconnect - Finally, reconnect with your friends and family. Traumatic experiences are isolating. Yes, people were with you, but your trauma experience was yours alone. Reconnect with the people you love.
posted by 26.2 at 8:26 AM on July 22, 2008

I'm a neuroscience student - certainly, I can say that I don't know how to explain that. Take stock of what might have caused that and continue to see a neurologist.

Learn from your experience; talk to a therapist. The overarching problem here is your spinal cord. I can't say I know of any disorder where you'd be spontaneously paralyzed - the tinnitus is a side-effect of the MRI and the inability to sleep is a reasonable effect of waking up spontaneously paralyzed.

Is ikkyu2 around? He's got an MD; he can really weigh in on this better than I can. I study normal brains; he studies the pathological ones.

posted by kldickson at 8:57 AM on July 22, 2008

wow. that's scary. and good for you that whatever it was seems to have dissipated.

about 1.5 years ago, i found myself on a heap on the floor, paralyzed on the left side from my lips down. no fiance to call 911, and it took me a half hour to crawl & flop my way to the phone so i could do it myself. long story short: i spent 2 full days & one nite in the hospital, where the assumption initially was that i had a stroke, later diagnosis showed it to be a tmi, exacerbated by high blood pressure.

about 2 weeks after i got out of the hospital, i got a phone call from a nurse with the insurance company as a follow-up to my hospitalization. she wanted to see if i had any questions or problems & give me some basic tips for avoiding ending up in the same boat again. at the end of our conversation, she asked me how i was doing emotionally, if i'd had any depression. i was perplexed. she went on to explain that often people who find themselves in similar situations become depressed; facing mortality or something like that.

i couldn't help myself. i started laughing. it was her turn to be perplexed.

'you don't understand,' i told her. 'two weeks ago i thought my life was effectively over, that i'd never walk again. today i got up, took a shower, dressed, drove to work--TO WORK!--and everything is moving, bending, motoring fine. i'm not depressed; i'm ecstatic!'

she was a bit taken aback, but not nearly as stunned as i was when i found myself in a heap on the floor. intellectually i know i can find that heap again at any time, without the slightest notice. i'm not going to waste my time between right now this moment & when that might happen again by ... i don't know. dwelling on it or letting it dwell on me.

i wish you the best of health & hope you find your peace.
posted by msconduct at 9:10 AM on July 22, 2008

I feel your pain. I went through something similar, although not quite as scary as full on paralysis. For me, it was my right arm and leg that went compltely... well, dead. I could feel them, but damn if I had *any* muscle strength at all -- it was as if they just stopped responding.

I can't say this loud enough:

Someone who cares enough (and/or is intrigued enough -- the end result is the same) to figure out what was wrong. I lucked out and finally found an awesome neuro who just happened to be on call when I went to the ER, again. (Previous neuros just brushed things off as a "a-typical migrane" -- so *not* the right answer). My awesome neuro put me through every freakin' test he could think of, and in the end, figured it out. He could just not accept the fact that a 28 yo female was having these spells I described. At the same time, he was reassuring that they would figure it out.

Having someone on your side, who has the power to actually figure things out, makes all the difference in the world. Emotionally, you feel like you're actually taking matters in your own hands, even if all you're doing is allowing yourself to be subjected to all these (not necessarily fun) tests.

I also know you said you don't want to talk about it -- but you need to. It happened. It may actually be a freak, one time thing and you're perfectly fine. (I am, for example -- my episodes have stopped, my brain has apparently adjusted for it's lack of blood flow [I've seen the before and after pictures with my own 2 eyes], and all is good. It is possible for it all to be okay!) But it did happen, and nothing you can say or do, or not say or do, is going to change that. If you accept it, and deal with it; it will be better.

Feel free to mefi me, if you do want to talk... i can't offer much but a shoulder to cry on, but sometimes just being allowed to whine and say "this isn't fair!" helps. Or to compare how horrible the MRI/CT scans are, etc.
posted by cgg at 9:22 AM on July 22, 2008

It's not the same situation, but last year, my wife ended up quite sick. She was in and out of the ER with a fever >106°F and a host of other frightening symptoms (including things like light sensitivity, a stiff neck, etc). She was given a spinal tap, some x-rays including a CT, a wide variety of blood tests and released, still feeling horrible and with a high fever.

She was in and out of the hospital for several days (it's hard to stay hydrated orally with a high fever and severe nausea), and despite testing for practically everything (to the point where they tested for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever twice, etc.) Eventually, they released her (while he still felt horrible) with the diagnosis along the lines of "non-specific viral infection." Over the next week or two, she got better.

The real difficulty for her came later. When she first got sick, she had a sore throat and a headache (normal cold/flu symptoms). Since then, every time she's felt even slightly sick, she's worried it's going to turn into that nightmare again. It's tough because they never put a name on the condition. At the same time, it's getting easier with time. Still, I would recommend continuing to try for a diagnosis (that sounds terrifying and I feel for you!) and possibly talking to a therapist about the trauma. Good luck!
posted by JMOZ at 10:24 AM on July 22, 2008

It was scary to me to realize the doctors don't always know all. It made me feel guilty that someone else had to take care of me. For me, it was more important to talk about these emotions (even if in generalized terms) rather than the specific details.

It's also ok (and expected) to be sensitive to your body. If you can direct it towards eating healthy, or even keeping a small "health/wellness" journal it has the potential to be useful rather than anxiety-producing.
posted by ejaned8 at 1:05 PM on July 22, 2008

If you have to have an MRI again, ask if they have an open MRI. My mom had a panic attack inside a regular MRI, and later had the procedure in an open machine and did better. Also, they had me remove anything metal from my person, and I was allowed to stay in the room with her. It's not like an X-ray where you can't be in the room. Ask if someone can stay with you.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:07 PM on July 22, 2008

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