Even Routine Medical Appointments Can Trigger My Trauma

An orthopedist visit takes columnist Brianna Albers back to her 7-year-old self

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by Brianna Albers |

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As I write this, my dad debates the longevity of one of my favorite dresses. I bought it used, so I don’t feel bad retiring it. But my dad is hesitant, despite the fact that he throws a fit every time I put it on. I’m purging my wardrobe, so I’m inclined to donate it. Dad, on the other hand, is digging his heels in, insisting the dress looks great.

I do my best to keep up with the banter. We’re en route to the orthopedics appointment I mentioned last week. I can feel myself slipping into medical mode, where the whole of my attention is focused on survival. It’s been this way since I was a child. From torturous blood draws to life-threatening surgeries, I learned at a young age that clinics were a necessary evil.

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I’ve gotten better at self-regulating over the years. I no longer burst into tears at the mere mention of surgery. Some of my appointments are downright pleasant, like my monthly allergy shot. But there are moments of anxiety. Moments when my heartbeat quickens — sometimes out of instinct, sometimes out of trauma.

I’m reliving the past.

I’m remembering every fruitless blood draw, every time I sobbed in the dark for fear of anesthesia.

I’m a 27-year-old woman, but I’m also a 7-year-old girl, wondering if I’ll survive the operation, if I’ll ever see my parents again.

This is a routine appointment. Worst-case scenario, the orthopedist will examine my shoulder and determine that I am eligible for treatment. Surgery? Cortisone injections? Physical therapy? The specifics are to be determined, but either way, there’s nothing to fear.

Still my chest tightens. Still my heartbeat quickens. My dad says something about the dress, to which I laugh. Meanwhile, the 7-year-old girl in me waits for the other shoe to drop.

We make our way to the second floor, which houses the specialty clinic. I check in and am handed a form I’ve filled out countless times. Medical history. Medications. The movie “Rawhide” plays on a TV in the far corner of the waiting room.

In my mind’s eye, I’m holding my own hand. The 27-year-old tells the 7-year-old that things are fine. She is safe. There is nothing to fear.

My once favorite dress feels tight and constricting.

We’re brought to an exam room. We explain what happened: an accident while transferring between wheelchairs. The assistant listens attentively, and I think, not for the first time, how nice it is to be taken seriously. Finally, miraculously, I don’t have to validate my pain.

The orthopedist arrives in a rush of introductions and pleasantries. She lifts my arm above my head and notes when my shoulder pops out of socket. She mentions the likelihood of hip displacement with neuromuscular diseases, which is news to me. She doesn’t mention SMA, but I get the feeling that, unlike previous doctors, she is a decent bet.

It turns out my diagnosis of “torn rotator cuff” might not be accurate. The orthopedist suspects my shoulder is partly dislocated. My lack of muscle tone means that my shoulder is constantly dislocating, which would explain the random bouts of pain.

We go through my options. A brace wouldn’t help; surgery would be more trouble than it’s worth. Ultimately, it’s important to keep my shoulder located to the best of my ability. There might be other options, but the doctor suggests going to our local neuromuscular clinic for a full assessment.

I leave the clinic feeling lighter. It’s a beautiful summer day, all blue sky and soft breeze. The sun warms the bare skin of my calves as we walk to the van.

The 7-year-old in me exhales in relief.

Thanks for reading! You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram, subscribe to my newsletter, or support me on Substack.

Note: SMA 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 SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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