Case Study of a Surgeon: James, Strong & Capable

The following is the redacted story of an individual I served in-home over 2 days in the spring of 2016. These are the details according to my clinical hypnotherapy notes, the written testimony of his family, and my own recollection.  Names and details have been changed in order to keep the personal details of the individuals private.

James is a medical doctor, a rancher, and a surgeon who at the time was functioning with a spinal fuse which had failed at the high-mid back (at one of the T vertebrae in the thoracic spine) and was causing him to stand and sit very uncomfortably with head drooped, unable to lift it.  When we met he was awaiting a surgery scheduled 2 weeks later to repair his spine. Through our work, his goal (in the highest sense) was to have the most positive surgery outcome possible, to heal fully, and to return to the active life he loved.

Context:  

Graduation, Hypnotherapy Academy of America

The first day I met James was just a few days before he and I ultimately worked together. At that moment in time, I was interviewing for the Business Operations Manager role I later accepted at Stratolaunch Systems (then Vulcan Aerospace), I had just graduated from the Hypnotherapy Academy of America, NM as a certified hypnotherapist (pictured to the right), and I was opening my private hypnotherapy practice based out of in Seattle WA.  We met through his daughter, Cynthia:  he was cooking breakfast for her and a couple of her friends – myself included – in the kitchen of their family home.  The timeline of all these events from the date of my certification as a hypnotherapist, to working with Cynthia, to meeting her father James and supporting his surgery outcome with hypnotherapy sessions, to the date of James’ final spine surgery is no more than 25 days.  The following information I obtained from James directly at the outset of our healing work, during a sort of intake interview.

James’ history:  

In a word, I describe James as distinguished.  In three words, a remarkable, grounded family man.  He spent his life not only as a horse rancher, but as a leader in his community, both in his field and in business.  He, with his beloved wife Sara, and often with their children, would vacation as a family, boating in the blue waters of the Carribbean.  He was active, intelligent, and kind but shrewd. As mentioned, when I met him, he had lost functionality from his mid-back up through the neck, and in order to look at me, he had to kind of look out from underneath the dropped brow of his head, peeking sideways because he could not lift his head.   

According to James’ own report to me, he had required a fuse of 2 vertebrae in his cervical spine the year before.  Not an incredibly risky or uncommon procedure – and not a complex one in his case. He possessed none of the typical risk factors of a person who would experience complications or failures during this type of surgery.  But some time after his surgery, James’ fuse did “fail”. There was no understandable medical reason for this (per the client), and there was no surgical error: “it just happened.”  

Working with excellent doctors and surgeons, they went back for a second fusion – this approach means that they worked to fuse a larger portion of the upper spine, and if effective, although James would not have normal range of motion in the fused part of the spine (approximately the upper third of it), he would have the hope of living life free of pain and of returning to many of his cherished daily activities.  This outcome however did not occur.  

Shortly after the second surgery, this fuse failed as well.  This was the point where James experienced inability to raise his head and to some degree, his upper body.  The nature of the fail was below the fuse.  Therefore, the length of the fuse itself (maybe 10 inches as I understood it) was fixed, but right at the base of the fuse, it broke post-surgery.  This created the hunchback-like posture James was challenged with when we worked together.  

The plan James made with his excellent doctors was to attempt a third fuse, which would encompass the entire thoracic spine and part of the lumbar spine, as well as the cervical spine already implied.  Already the circumstances for him were not ideal, and the options were extremely few and unfavorable. But between the date of the second fuse surgery and scheduling the third fuse surgery, James’ left hip joint deteriorated rapidly and dramatically.  Some of the medications he was taking (steroids as I understood from him) as a result of the active health challenges did have side effects of joint weakening, but as he explained to me, the speed and extent of the deterioration of his hip was inexplicable.  The timing of this setback was unfortunate and troublesome because the hip replacement surgery he then needed to undergo required intubation – a process where a tube would be placed into his airway to assist his breathing while under general anesthesia, but because of the status of his neck/spine, this was going to be very complicated and challenging.  

When I met James, all of these events had already transpired, and the hip replacement had been done.  The date of his third spine fusion surgery was inside of 2 weeks, and his main concern was to have an effective surgery outcome.  He was also in pain and experiencing fear: as he explained to me when we began our work together, “If this fuse doesn’t take, I’ll have to accept being a hunchback for the rest of my life.” 

My Introduction to James:  

Aside from being the content beneficiary of some delicious eggs laid by his family’s chickens and scrambled by his own hand, I did not know James when we first began working together.  A surgeon for more than three decades, James’ life work was spent in the sciences. The idea of working with me with hypnotherapy was an outcropping of a conversation between Cynthia and her family about sessions she was completing with me.  About 10 days prior to this conversation, I was newly certified as a hypnotherapist and offered some gift sessions to the public, as is common for newly trained hypnotherapists to do. Cynthia jumped at the chance and shared the experience with her family.  As it was told to me by Cynthia, who among other things is a passionate yoga instructor, she had often shared her love of alternative methodologies and paths with her father, but did not feel met with genuine interest or acknowledgement. If anything, James was somewhat dismissive of alternative modalities.  This day, she told me, about her work with me, it was different. 

Although she and I were working (by my estimation) a fairly light emotional issue together, when she shared the impact that only two of our meetings had had for her so far, James paused, looked at her, and said, “Maybe she can help me.”  Looking back, it was at this moment that a healing bridge was built between James and I, even though I didn’t know it at the time.

The next day Cynthia called me and asked if she could “give” her third remaining hypnotherapy session to her father.  I hesitated in the moment as we discussed logistics, because his issue was very serious and I wanted to provide the best care possible to him, but we were also working with some very concrete time constraints:  I was leaving town in 3 days, and his surgery was across the country in 10 days. Despite my fears – of all the unknowns at the time, least of which being my own abilities as a brand new hypnotherapy practitioner – I wanted to try.  So we set up the appointment at their family home the next day.  

Working together:  

I came to James’ beautiful ranch-style home this time prepared with everything I knew, and right away we dove into education about the naturally occurring hypnotic state, and about how our attention directs our own physiologies automatically.  We discussed how, by even the most passive of interpretations, healing forces within the human body are directed according to the state of mind we are in, and the ideas we hold in our awareness.  This is all the foundation of hypnotherapy for healing.

Let’s back up a moment:  I want to share that I was a little bit intimidated during these powerhouse two days in James’ home.  He was basically the fourth person I had ever worked with outside of a classroom. I also knew he wasn’t yet sure of the effectiveness or “validity” of the method we were undertaking together, and he had a lot of education of his own backing up that belief system.  But you can bet James was intimidated too, hah! As new as I felt to being in my role in our healing relationship, he was newer to his…  It’s inherently vulnerable to be cared for as a “client” or “patient”; no one knows the way through a healing process he’s walked it and come out the other side.  On top of that, hypnotherapy is truly self-help; when people stop doubting the process itself, they often redirect that doubt back at themselves. Everyone has doubts, and James was no different.  His power, however, was that he had come to a place where it was riskier for him to stand back and hang onto what was familiar than it was to take new action.  

While I shared every shred of background that might serve his outcome, and we scoured his personal history to get an accurate picture of our problem set, he peered at me, head hanging and eyes focused, attention sharp.  Neither of us could have been more motivated for his successful outcome. Although James had spent his life holding a certain degree of skepticism about non-traditional means of healing, that skepticism was now a luxury he could not afford.  All of his energy was now being directed toward learning this new skill and guiding his own awareness to create a change in his body and his experience.

Within the first 10 minutes of that meeting, James told me, in an indifferent way, and as if there were nothing more obvious:  “Everyone knows, surgeons have the hardest time with [their own] surgeries.” As our conversation continued, the narrative became more intricate.  He went on to share with me that through his adulthood, he had had more than 20 surgeries which, almost by rule, were ill-fated or had near-catastrophic outcomes and needed to be treated again in a critical manner.  He told me that, time and time again, his post-operation progress notes would baffle the medical teams, and that it was not uncommon for one of the doctors overseeing his recovery to say, “This is the worst outcome I’ve ever seen,” or “I’ve never seen anything like this.”  Poor surgery outcomes, without explanation and against all odds, were James’ normal experience.  

This new information did not clarify our course of action at the time, but actually confused things for me.  It was as if his history was a set of data proving that he has epically bad surgeries. Even though James’ long history of failures in surgery had an obvious pattern to both of us, seeing that doesn’t change anything.  Heading into the most high stakes surgery of his life in 10 days, we had to remain focused on changing the pattern and creating a positive surgery outcome for him this time – not head-nodding together about the data set.  

Fortunately, we were wielding a tool of action, not one of analysis.  And I was learning firsthand how in the purest sense of things, the practitioner of hypnotherapy must follow the client, do the work, and in consideration of the ticking clock, refrain from trying to problem solve in the classic sense.  When you have 36 hours to work together like we had, your best assurance is that the intelligence creating the problem is directly connected to the root of the problem. I.e., the answers are within the client.

After the first day of working together, we agreed to meet again the very next day to take advantage of my last afternoon in town before his surgery.  With day one concluded, I did not have clear direction heading into the second meeting.  

I thought about James’ case a lot between that afternoon when we broke around 4:30pm, and the next day when I showed up for our second meeting at 2pm.  I made phone calls to colleagues, reviewed my case studies, sifted through all my scripts and books, and sat back to look at the big picture. I was seeking how to make the most use out of our remaining time together.  You see, there are many approaches you can take using altered state: it’s kind of like having a blank canvas to paint on. I wanted to ensure that our time really made the difference for him if it could, and I wasn’t sure how to attack without trying to steer so hard and limiting the outcome.  

On the drive over to his house on our last day together, I remembered something that my mentor said to me once about trusting client’s creative subconscious and intrinsic healing capability.  He said, 

“They’ll tell you what you need to know in the first ten sentences.”  

This recollection allowed me to step into proper authority in to helping James to confront a destructive limiting idea and choose something different.  

When I arrived, James and I regrouped.  He’d been diligent about the work I gave him between meetings, and he was in incredible spirits.  His wife could see the change and with misty eyes told me so. When we got down to the business of setting agenda for our time, I mentioned the deeply engrained belief James had shared with me the day before:  “Surgeons have a hell of a time with their own surgeries.” I said, “It’s not for me to say whether it’s true or not, but I have to think it’s not helping you achieve your outcome this time. What do you think?” 

James, with head and neck bowed, and eyes peering warmly out at me sideways, produced a soft chuckle that shook his upper body gently.  “Yeah I don’t think it’s helping me,” he said.  

“Would it be okay to let that one go?” I asked him. 

Quietly, and with a peaceful resignation, James said, “Yeah, we can let that one go.”  

I was elated at the feeling of comfort and agreement he had about this approach, as it made me more certain than ever we could create the environment for a healthy surgery response.  From here was easy. 

There are mechanisms which allow us to identify, experience, and know what is “true” for us, and what is “false” for us.  Change the mechanisms, you change the experience in an instant. Although James’ conscious mind “knew” that this limiting belief about surgeons and surgery might be more superstition than anything, his subconscious had accepted it as true long ago.  

Out of respect (and because it didn’t matter), I didn’t ask James the origin of the idea he had accepted about surgeons and surgery. But I’d wager money that at some point in the younger man’s life, a trusted advisor, sage professor, or esteemed surgeon had shared this idea with James, and likely others.  It’s not my place to call it true or false, and there’s no value in sorting it out. Luckily, because we could agree that it wasn’t helpful to him having the vital healing outcome we were striving for, we just used an extremely thorough and little known hypnotherapy technique over the next 2 hours to allow James to completely release the associated feeling of truth around that idea, in order to embrace the deeper and more important truth instead:  That his body was just as capable of healing as anyone’s, and that he is strong and capable.  

We parted ways that day, with many warm wishes and optimism about the surgery and related cross-country travel he would make in 9 days.  

Resolution:

James’ third spinal fuse “took”.  He recovered from the surgery and the last time I saw the family, they were well, happy, and traveling together, as in years before.  

James is able to ride his horses again, and to spend time on open waters by boat with his beloved Sara – just like the outcome imagery he and I selected for him.  He holds his head high and neck straight, standing his full stature. He shares his calming, steady smile with others, greeting them face to face and meeting others’ gaze with his eyes.  

This case study is special to me, partly because James’ healing was healing for me as well.  His bravery taught me many things, and his trust enabled me to learn many things though the experience – things that only experience can teach.  

As I say with every outcome I have the privilege to relate:  sharing the facts of what happened is no claim to cause. It’s not my purpose to prove what happened, only to show what’s possible.  When the time comes that a person has suffered enough with whatever constraint he or she is experiencing, that’s a powerful moment. My hope is that everyone have someone surrounding them who can help them see what prisons we’re creating (or reinforcing) ourselves, and someone who can share empowered tools of action to dismantle those prisons and find ourselves resting in our natural state of freedom. 

Mandy BarbeeComment