The Trauma of a Tonsillectomy

IMG_1268_2A few days ago, my six-year-old had tonsil surgery. There’s this cliché idea of this procedure as a minor rite of passage many children undergo. It involves the fun of popsicles and ice cream to soothe the throat’s wounds. I had this notion too, I’d never had my own tonsils out and my husband didn’t remember much of his experience. Neither of us knew first hand how painful and long tonsillectomy recovery could be.

Tonsillectomy Recovery: Night One

At about 3 a.m. on the night of my daughter’s surgery, she woke up in severe pain. She burst into our bedroom sobbing and babbling. “My throat hurts, there’s a man in my room, there’s a bad guy!” I got up, my head feeling like a stone, and stumbled downstairs to the bathroom. In the blur of the sharp light, I found the pain medicine and went back upstairs. My husband snuggled and rocked her as she cried until I poured the liquid ibuprofen in a cup and gave it to her. She swallowed it all. After a few minutes of holding her in my arms, she calmed down. A cold wetness fell onto my wrist. She was drooling because it hurt too much to swallow.

Soon my husband said, “I’ll lay with her.” He took her to her bedroom and closed the door. Later when he returned to our bedroom, he said the rain was pounding out of the downspout by her window. It was thumping on the roof and truly sounded like a bad guy walking on the floors of our house.

Tonsillectomy Recovery: Night Two

On the second night of tonsillectomy recovery, she again burst into our bedroom crying. This time she said, “My throat hurts. My throat hurts. It hurts when I swallow.” I turned on the light. Huge tears dripped off her face. Her chin was red from rubbing it with her fingers. And her eyes, her big solidly dark brown eyes, were desperate and pleading. She was utterly relying on us to do something: help her and help her quickly.

As she lay in my husband’s arms, breathing in a heavy stuttered rhythm, I again stumbled downstairs for the pain medicine. I couldn’t get her face out of my mind. It was the same face as the night before. Worried, hurting, desperate.

Kids cry a lot, it’s no secret. They get angry and cry. They cry when they skin a knee or bump their head. There are tears my daughter sheds when she’s in trouble and walking upstairs on her way to a time out. These are an expression of frustration and they are temporary, as I’ve found many times after I put a band-aid on her knee or check in after a couple minutes on a timeout. They’re so temporary that oftentimes she’s singing to herself or pretending to read a book aloud or playing teacher with her whiteboard minutes after crying.

The Essence of Pain

But these tears, during the nights after the medication wears off, are the essence of pain. The tears want something so intensely they scream, “I’m helpless, will someone please help me?!” I think of young victims of war, genocide, abuse, even my oldest son who had his tonsils out when my kids were still in an orphanage. He was an innocent child who had no parental bedroom to burst into when he was at his most pained and needy. It breaks my heart.

This week I’m trying to remember those children as I deal with the discovery that tonsil surgery isn’t the trivial “Brady Bunch” endeavor I’d always thought it was. It’s a minor mutilation and though of course it’s in the name of helping my child in several ways, I’ve realized it’s a trauma, plain and simple — for her and me.

So on Night Three, I’m prepared. I have my alarm set and the pain medicine by my bedside.

Have your kids ever had their tonsils out? Were they in a lot of pain or did they sail by the recovery? Let me know if the comments below!

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