@red3 Hey Ruthann, your body is probably telling you there's a problem, and your brain is saying, hey not so fast! I've been through something before and I don't know what to do about this. May I give you a few suggestions to start a conversation with yourself?
I did a lot of things that were my way of talking to that scared child inside me. I started by making a list of the adverse events in my life that made me feel afraid, and they were things with similar feelings of medical or dental procedures and why I felt the way I did. I looked at that list and saw a pattern, so I knew why my need of spine surgery was triggering anxiety. What was common to all of my fears through childhood is that I didn't have emotional support, and at a young age, I didn't know how to understand it all, so I was alone with the burden of my fear and anxious about the next time I would be afraid.
I also realized that children are not born with fears. Fear was driving up my blood pressure and I asked myself why I was doing this to myself. Fear is learned somewhere along the way, and I decided that I could deprogram my fears if I understood them. My childish way of looking at this was my attempt to protect myself when I was vulnerable, but it wasn't serving me well now as an adult with an important decision to make. I also reached out to people I knew who had overcome a lot of medical issues that were more serious than what I faced. I knew them because our paths had crossed through my participation and experience with music and connecting with other performers. Both had written books about their survival experiences, and I re-read those books looking for words that could build my courage. Because of my spine problem, I was facing the loss of my ability to do my art work, and I sent a message to one of the authors, my friend Wayne Messmer, whom I had performed with in a community band. At first, I didn't know that I'd been part of his recovery. I had met him at a time in his life after he had survived a gun shot wound to his throat, and he had just regained the ability to sing. The invitation to sing with our band was the first since his recovery and his voice is his gift that he uses to sing the national anthem for a few of the Chicago sports teams. I had the most wonderful response from him telling me that even though I was facing an unknown, it was worth the chance to save my talent.
I also asked for permission to be afraid. Through my early years, I had been expected to just endure, and was teased about my fears, so I knew better than to talk about it, but as an adult, I needed to do that, and to find a way to tell that little girl that it will be OK, and I'd be with her through everything. I also asked one of my doctors who had heart surgery, and he told me that he was afraid too. If a doctor can have fear of a medical intervention, then it must be OK for me as a patient. It helped me to know that, and to realize that they are human like the rest of us. They also have to cope with the tragedies that they see in their profession. Doctors and patients are a lot alike.
I used all the life experience I had to address this and my knowledge of biology, and I needed to understand in detail exactly how surgery would help me. It all made perfect sense, and I was making a choice to go forward. I had already lost the ability to control my arms and the strength to hold them up. I knew that my spine would get worse, and that I was lucky because I had a choice to avoid a disability if I chose to have spine surgery, and with that, I chose the very best surgeon I could find.
I also used music, art, and humor as my therapy to distract me from thinking about surgery. I learned to lower my blood pressure by using deep relaxed breathing while I listened to music I loved, and that became a skill that I could call up in my mind when ever I needed it. I had been measuring my blood pressure before and after my music therapy and could drop my numbers by at least 15 points. I drew pictures of my doctors because I wanted to like them. I didn't want to see them like those who had provoked my fears when I was young. I built on that by looking at pictures of my surgeon while I was listening to music to associate him with all that good stuff. I also watched TED talks about fear and funny videos.
Gratitude also helps combat fear. Being thankful for all the goodness in your life, and making sure that you surgeon knows you are grateful for their help also goes a long way toward helping you feel better and more in control of your situation. Surgeons do have stressful jobs, and I felt as a patient, that I could reduce that stress with gratitude and that it would help my surgeon help me. I made a point to meet him right before my surgery so I could thank him for helping me, and also to reconfirm that I didn't want hardware used in the procedure as we had agreed upon. By this time, I was calm and interested in what was going on around me.
All of this was a process, and I learned a lot along the way. Am I immune from fear now? Of course not, but I can recognize it earlier when it sneaks up on me, and get on top of it sooner. I also compare a new situation to what I have already faced and how I can now handle it, and I realize that I can do this by taking apart the problem and examining the parts. If you can control fear, pain will be a lot less, and my fear had been the fear of pain all of those years. I thought spine surgery would be really painful, but it wasn't. It was tolerable to me even without painkillers. The pre surgical pain was gone immediately, and I did have surgical pain, but none of that compared in intensity to a pain that I had because of a spinal injection which was the worse pain I ever felt in my life before I came to Mayo. I had sucessfuly managed to get through that and stop myself from passing out by using my breathing, visualization and music techniques in my mind, and other things by comparison were not as bad as that was. After surgery, the pain medicines made me nauseous, so I didn't take them at all after I left the hospital and I did just fine. I rested and slept and gave my body time and peace to heal…. and when I was ready, I picked up my brushes and painted my surgeon with his blessings. When I was nervous before my surgery, I drew pictures of him so I could be comfortable and think about him as a person instead of a doctor, and that naturally led to my desire to put into a painting what my words could not say. It was done in gratitude for him, but also for me because I needed to regain that ability by setting the goal, and now he has a painting he loves, and he learned something from me, his patient. I know I've already shared my Mayo patient story with you, but for anyone else who is now joining the conversation, here it is.