The Smell of Hand Sanitizer Provokes Traumatic Hospital Memories
It’s funny how the mind processes things.
When I think about my hospital admission prior to my 2016 lupus diagnosis, I automatically identify it as a traumatic experience. But I don’t realize just how traumatic it was until I find myself back in the same hospital, immersed in a clinical environment with the incessant beeping of monitors and machines and the low murmurs of nurses.
The last time I put on a hospital gown was for my most recent kidney biopsy in 2018. As soon as they put a wristband on me and confined me to a hospital bed, it all came flooding back.
The hospital’s protocol is for patients to be wheeled from one unit to the next, whether they can walk or not. Being stuck on a hospital bed while someone ushers me around an unfamiliar building makes me feel uneasy and helpless.
They hand me an oversized hospital gown. You know the type — it’s the one that barely ties up and always leaves a gigantic gap showing at least half of the back and butt. When I put that gown on, I am no longer the strong, fierce person I know. I am a number defined by a medical issue. I am a patient again.
It causes horrible flashbacks to when I was scared and alone, and being stuck with needles every couple of hours, enduring an excruciating wait for test results and answers, and having no option but to place all my hope and trust in people I just met.
My local hospital has hand sanitizer stations at regular intervals all over the building and at every entrance. As I push down on the pump, the smell of the spray hits me, and in that instant, I am transported back in time to when I was 20 years old and anxiously awaiting diagnosis.
It is both amazing and terrifying how smell can take me back in time in a way that other senses cannot. The thought of visiting a loved one or going to the hospital does not bother me. But every time I step up to the sanitizer on my way in, I hold my breath and my heart flutters. In that moment, all the progress I have made in nearly four years temporarily vanishes. For a split second, I am overcome by anxiety and once again at the mercy of my wicked, meddling chronic illness.
As the smell starts to dissipate, I come out of the daze and regain my confidence and strength. I realize that as I recall that difficult period, I subconsciously change my posture to suit the memory. Remembering who I am and who I have fought to be, I then stand taller and leave that ghost at the hand sanitizer station until next time.
Every time I enter the hospital, I am revisited by that ghoul. Each time, I endure the flashback and fight to be at peace with the memory. I cannot erase the trauma of my past, but I can remind myself that it has made me who I am today: powerful, strong, resilient, and fierce. That is who I see in the mirror every day.
I can’t prevent the memory from affecting me. But I can make sure that every day, I mold and shape the trauma into an experience that I can grow from.
Note: Lupus News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Lupus News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to lupus.