When Doctors Become Trauma Informed

Around 25 years ago while only in my 40s, it was discovered that I was on the verge of a major heart attack and needed emergency angioplasty. The cardiologist my family doctor sent me to after there seemed to be no explanation for my chest pains made a comment after the procedure that stuck with me. He said that it looked like I had about 17 years of stress in my life that had created the blockage in my heart, based on all the little capillaries that had formed trying to allow blood to move through it. I thought that was interesting that he picked the number 17 because I had recently gotten out of a 17-year marriage that was fraught with stress.

Over the years I shared a lot of the information I was learning about trauma and its impact on the body with this very caring and receptive doctor. He seemed eager to learn more about the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) on cardiac issues later in life. I would bring him articles from https://www.acesconnection.com/ and the CDC and would suggest books like Childhood Disrupted, Ghosts from the Nursery, The Body Keeps the Score and Scared Sick, to name a few. We would have long conversations about what could help him better understand how his patients experiencing excessive stress in life could result in major cardiac issues. He said he shared my information with his wife, a pediatrician at a local children’s hospital. He said that information began the journey of giving them both new insights on the needs of their patients and changed how they offered treatment.

Last month when I went for my semi-annual checkup he shared that he now spends about half his time providing therapeutic interventions to his cardiac patients because he is more aware of how many of them are suffering from PTSD. He seemed wistful as he described how the knowledge and impact of trauma can have such devastating effects on the heart and how this is impacting his practice.

I couldn’t help but think how blessed these patients are that they have a cardiologist who takes the time to appreciate that their physical pain is directly connected with the emotional pain that may have occurred much earlier in life. I think about how these patients now have permission to address some of their traumatic losses as a result of having a caring physician appreciate that their body was responding to the impact of excessive stress and then resulted in cardiac problems.

He said that his pediatrician wife is now seeing many more cases of PTSD in the children she treats and often hospitalizes those with the most severe stresses. He wondered if PTSD and other related stress disorders are on the rise or if and his wife have just become more trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive and those stressors were there all along.

This is what can happen when doctors become trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive. They see through new lenses that some of the medical problems they are treating may have underlying roots in unresolved trauma and toxic stress. In treating these patients for more than just their physical issues, they can be so much more holistic in their treatment and can promote healing beyond the physical because they can encourage patients to seek the help they need to address their unresolved trauma issues. They can also be advocates for educating patients to be more attuned to the impact of trauma in the lives of their children and other family members.

I picture a world where all physicians and other medical specialists are trauma-aware and trauma-sensitive and imagine how much different the world of medicine would be. There is so much potential for healing when someone with unresolved trauma is treated with compassion and respect and given opportunities and encouragement to work on resolving their underlying issues around trauma.

I left the office that day feeling the mixture of happiness that my doctor has become so trauma-aware and trauma-sensitive. I also now appreciative that all this awareness, respect and compassion has made his job much more complicated and time-consuming as he now spends more time exploring each patient’s emotional life journey and connecting that with how their bodies have been impacted. It’s hard when your eyes are opened to the devastating impact of trauma—it dramatically changes how you see your role in caring for others. At the same time it gives you opportunities to promote healing that goes beyond just the physical.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. How trauma-informed are the doctors or other medical professionals in your life are?
  2. How would becoming more trauma-informed change the ways these medical professionals interact with you, your family and other patients?
  3. How prepared and how willing are you to be an advocate for promoting trauma-informed doctors and other medical professionals? If you are interested, you can start by recommending the ACEs Connection website: (https://www.acesconnection.com/ ) or recommend they go to David Baldwin’s Trauma Pages for a plethora of resources.

Diane Wagenhals

Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute