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We All Have Trauma, but How Do You Control Its Effects?

Personal Perspective: My patient Charlie taught me something.

Key points

  • Trauma is not only physical injury but can also be mental, spiritual, man-made, or "God-made."
  • The loss of control is what leads to the spiral of trauma
  • We can be in control of how we view our story.
RDNE Stock project / Pexels
Source: RDNE Stock project / Pexels

Trauma is a word used to describe such a wide range of situations. The concept has meant many different things to different people over the years. Does it harden the steel or tear you down?

In my career as an orthopedic surgeon, I thought I knew what trauma was. As an adoptee, I’ve been presented with the possibility that early maternal separation may have been a traumatic event for me. I haven’t always been able to weave this new perspective into my understanding of trauma or how to heal from unremembered and subconscious occurrences.

One patient has helped me to understand what trauma is in an interesting way. Charlie was 90 years old when we met. He came into my office because he had knee pain.

As I walked in, his authentic smile and energy immediately lit up this already bright exam room.

“Hey doc, how are you? It’s great to meet you,” he said

By his enthusiasm, I knew this was going to be fun.

“You too, Charlie,” I replied, “What can I do for you?”

“I know what you’re going to tell me. You’re gonna say I have arthritis, but I can also tell you how I got it.”

“I’m sure you do, but how’d you get it,” I asked with curiosity

“I got it because I was the 1940 base stealing champion of Altoona, Pennsylvania,” he proudly boasted.

“That’s awesome. So you had some speed?”

“I sure did. That record stood for 14 years till someone broke it,” he said

“That’s great. Let me look at your X-rays.”

As we continued with our encounter, I noticed a World War II hat that he politely removed and set on a chair. I frequently took this opportunity to engage my veterans to ask about their experiences.

Were you in Europe or Asia?

“I was on Iwo Jima,” he matter-of-factly shared.

“Really?” I curiously prodded, “Were you there when they put the flag up?”

“Sure was. I was at the bottom of the hill.”

‘That’s great,” I naively said, but he wasn’t finished.

“Yeah, doc, but that flag went up after about four days. We then fought from hole to hole, finding the rest of them for the next three or four weeks. Doc, I can’t even tell you what it was like. There were bodies and parts and blood and stink and rats like it was the end of the world. It was brutal.”

He became much more thoughtful and serious.

I listened and then started thinking.

“I’m sorry you went through that, but are you trying to tell me that after spending about a month on Iwo Jima, you think you got your knee arthritis from stealing bases in high school?”

“Sh*t, doc, I never thought of that,” he replied, then stared up to the ceiling as if he just thought of something.

I felt bad for mentioning it, as I shared in Charlie’s confusion. I wasn’t aware of my trauma either until it was brought to my attention. I appreciate that I now know my truths, which did affect me.

I feel better about it, but living with it often becomes harder than the event.

I was told that adoption was a good thing because like Charlie, my parents and I wanted it to be. Later in life, we were faced with some real issues surrounding it.

I started thinking about it probably too much. This is what adoptees call “coming out of the fog.”

Coming out of the fog causes you to rethink everything. These thoughts start to mess with you. You don’t know the answer. No one knows the answer. And no one will give you the answer. It just is, and the injury can’t even be seen.

Looking back, I think this interaction with Charlie gave me an answer. The only place where the healing occurs is in my thoughts.

Trauma can be severe. It can also be nothing. It can be physical, mental, spiritual, man-made, or “God-made.” It can be empowering or destructive, both or neither.

Fundamentally, I believe it is primarily the loss of the sense of control that leads to the spiral. None of us really has as much control as we believe we do. We create our world into a bubble of manageable realities.

Most people stay in these bubbles and enjoy their life, whatever that means. Many, unfortunately, do not, and they carry their burden around with them in an infinite number of ways.

Charlie seemed to have controlled his life in a way that put those negative occurrences into a positive light and a wonderful, successful story. He stole more bases than anyone ever had before in Altoona, and he saved the world and his family from the “evil” actions of a country on the opposite side of the world.

Despite the hardships, he managed to organize the vision of his life into a positive thing for his country, his family, and himself. I’m sure, over the years, he made many people happy with this story. Despite finding himself compliantly sitting on an exam table with his short, frail stature, he took control and couldn’t wait to tell me about his incredible contribution to baseball history.

Life is constantly and simultaneously filled with wonderful and horrible events on a day-to-day basis. Each can affect the way we look at the world and ourselves. We can’t control the world and never have, but we do seem to be able to look at our contribution as either positive or negative. You need to control your thoughts. It’s not easy at times and takes effort.

I would like to accept both the positive and the negative and allow them to coexist as I continue to improve. That is not naïve. That is surviving.

I want to thank Charlie for teaching me that I am in control of how I view my story. I want my story to be a good one despite the “trauma.” I hope I didn’t ruin it for him.

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