Friday, September 18, 2009

Sometimes trauma has a Little t

My daughter tells me it wasn't a year ago, it was a year less 11 days, but to me it was exactly a year ago, because it was the day before Rosh Hashanah. My secretary walked right into a meeting in my office -- something she never does -- and told me that my daughter was on her way and had hurt her wrist. I walked into the main portion of the office and peeked out the window at my 10 year-old, whose cries I could already hear. I could see her walking with a friend, her arm poking out of her sweater with her wrist looking curved in all sorts of places that wrists are not supposed to curve. It was obviously broken. She had fallen off the monkey bars on the playground and landed on her arm. As it turned out, her arm was broken in the wrist and above the elbow. She required surgery that night and two days in the hospital, with me sleeping on the couch beside her.

Was this a critical incident? Hard to say. A critical incident is one which has the capacity to overwhelm your usual coping skills. This was certainly more obviously a trauma for my daughter than for me, but at the same time it was more emotionally distressing to me than it was to her. She wasn't scared so much as she was wanting the pain to stop. I was scared for her and coping with the violation of my belief that I could protect my children from harm.

The first clue that this incident overwhelmed my coping skills comes when we compare this incident to one that happened a couple of weeks earlier. Another child came in from the playground having fallen from a swing, his arm also obviously broken. While the office manager called the father, I worked with other staff to carefully immobilize the arm so dad could safely take the child to the hospital. When my own daughter was the victim, however, I simply grabbed my purse and ushered her to the car. I didn't assess the injury, I didn't splint it, and I left my keys on my desk inside. When the ER resident put her x-rays up for me to see I was horrified, both because of how graphic the elbow break was and because it was clear that I should not have driven her myself, and certainly not without immobilizing the injury.

Another hint that this was traumatic for me is the vivid sensory memories it holds. I can play it in my mind like a slideshow: the sight of her wrist . . . the sound of her begging me to touch her fingers in the car because she couldn't feel them . . . the feeling of lifting her into the wheelchair . . . the scene of them cutting off her sweater . . . the sight of the x-rays . . . the sound of her teacher on the phone saying, "if I could have flown across the playground, I would have caught her" . . . the smile on the doctor's face after surgery . . . the taste of the dinner my friend brought me . . . the sight of the "relaxation station" the hospital placed by her bed with gentle lights shining in the darkness.

If you ask my daughter about that day, she talks about it fairly calmly. If you ask me, I shudder visibly. It was worse for her physically, but for me emotionally. It's a good reminder that the people most impacted are not always who you might think, that sometimes trauma isn't Trauma, and also . . . be careful on the monkey bars.

May all the Quarterbackers out there be inscribed for a sweet, healthy, happy and trauma-free New Year.


Colleen said...

I still feel bad for her, for having gone through it (you too), but the before and after x-rays (which I didn't see until all was well...I had the luxury of concern, no trauma, with either t), were NEAT! Very very interesting.

But I'm very glad you have good health care and access to a good hospital.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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