by MARY ELIZABETH RAINES, DIRECTOR
Academy for Professional Hypnosis Training
It was a terrible fall. A rotted wooden stair collapsed under my feet, plunging me face down onto a rough patch of concrete. Up until then my only experience with emergency rooms was when I had been moonlighting from my job as a hypnotist to play the role of a hospital patient being wheeled down a hospital corridor on the TV show “E.R.”
Only moments before I had been standing outside my front gate with a cup of coffee, enjoying the fresh sunshine of the Hollywood morning and watching the bustling activity at the film studio across the street. My hypnosis students were scheduled to arrive in about an hour. Teaching hypnosis certification classes and watching my students blossom into competent hypnotists as they learn this magnificent art is one of my great joys. I walked back to the teaching studio with my mind happily focused on lesson plans for the day’s class…and the stair gave way. Spending the morning in the local hospital emergency room was not one of my lesson plans, but it did turn out to be quite a lesson!
Time seemed suspended as my body crashed in slow motion to the concrete below. While I was falling, I thought to myself, “Uh-oh. This is not going to be good.” The next moment I was lying face-down on wet concrete-wet, even though it was a dry day. The sickening realization came that the moisture under me was my own blood. And I was in pain. It was a struggle to move my body. I began to cry for help. Nobody heard me.
As I lay there waiting, I put myself into light trance and started giving myself suggestions that my face would not bruise, for my cheeks, forehead and nose had smashed into the concrete forcefully and were already throbbing with hurt. Eventually, after no one arrived, I managed to drag myself stiffly to my feet and get a nearby friend to drive me to the local emergency room.
My friend had also worked on “E.R.” as a script supervisor. We joked as we walked through the doors into the Hollywood emergency room that we should be getting paychecks-it was just like going to work…except that the red stuff on me wasn’t colored sugar syrup. In addition to bruises and small cuts the entire length of my body, I had three gruesome lacerations, one between my eyebrows, one just over an eye and the third on the middle finger of my right hand.
Without looking up, the woman behind the front window barked, “Fill out this form.” She shoved forth a dirty clipboard with an attached pen on a chain which had been used by every ambulatory emergency room patient capable of writing, regardless of what germs they carried.
“Sure,” I replied, holding up my bleeding third finger, “if I’m able to write. But I’m going to get a whole lot of blood all over your pen. Is that okay with you?”
Despite the jokes and wisecracks, I felt frightened and hurt. After the forms were completed, I took a seat in the waiting room. Looking around, I was reminded of how we teach our hypnosis students the use of soothing colors, appropriate music and comfortable furniture to assist people in becoming calm and relaxed. The sadist who had designed this particular waiting room could have benefited from such instruction. I gazed upon walls painted a sickly, harsh yellow-beige. There were rows of stiff, cold metal chairs designed in such a way that it was impossible to lean, slump or curl one’s body into any posture other than an erect sitting position.
A huge, high-mounted television set dominated the room; there was no way to avoid seeing and hearing it. Filling the screen was a lurid horror movie. Loud knife-edged shrieks from the musical score stabbed through the emergency waiting room as a gasping woman hid in a closet from a murderer stalking outside. It was 7:30 in the morning.
Eventually I was taken into the treatment room, where I was left to perch for a long, long time on a backless stool in the corridor, awaiting a vacant cubicle. Blood still flowed from my wounds into my eyes. My seat directly faced the nursing station through which the bustling, jabbering emergency room staff all passed: doctors, nurses, technicians, janitors. I was in shock and pain, and my body was trembling. I felt vulnerable and scared and alone. How I wished someone would stop by me and help me!
It was a vain wish. Not only did people fail to notice that I was bleeding and in crisis; virtually no one would make eye contact with me. It was surreal. I stared at the dozens of faces as they moved back and forth right in front of me, trying to make a connection. They laughed and chattered with one another. But nobody would even glance at me, a bloody frightened woman sitting on a stool. It was as though I wasn’t even there. They had obviously hypnotized themselves not to see their patients-I had become a negative hallucination!
After about ten minutes, a couple of doctors, deep in conversation, came striding down the corridor. One of them-a tall black man-allowed his eyes to rest on mine for just a moment as he continued to converse with his colleague. His gaze was soft and compassionate, and it flashed a message at me: “Yes, I see that you’re scared and hurt. You are not alone. It’s going to be all right.” As he passed, scarcely breaking stride, he reached out and briefly touched my shoulder. Then he was gone. How much that small assurance meant to me! I wanted to cry with relief. Someone in this vast place actually cared!
Then an elderly man in critical condition was wheeled into a treatment cubicle next to the nursing station and opposite me. For a few minutes people hovered busily around him, hoisting masks and tubes and other assorted equipment. He was rapidly hooked up to various machines, and then just as rapidly abandoned. What little of his face that remained visible above the gadgets and gizmos clamped onto his nose and mouth looked very frightened and pale. Across the expanse of tile and cubicles, I made deliberate eye contact and attempted express to him what the doctor’s gaze had said to me: “Yes, I see that you’re scared and hurt. You are not alone. It’s going to be all right.” Then someone came and pulled the curtain to his cubicle.
That incident brought a sudden realization to me which completely changed my perspective about the emergency room. The realization was: “I’ve been thinking that this is all about me. But this is not about me. It’s about other people. There is no question that I am going to survive. I am not hurt that badly, but there are people here who are hurt badly, and my pain and emotions are extremely incidental in this place.”
With that thought, I began to pull my focus away from my own discomfort and fear, and instead place my awareness on the staff and on the other patients who were comrades in our shared setting, many invisible to me because of the flimsy curtains. Why were they here? What were they experiencing? How were they feeling?
What a difference a small shift in perspective can make-as we hypnotists well know! I hadn’t done anything except to think differently, and suddenly I became visible. The staff started to notice me. I smiled at them. It was easy. They smiled back. We began conversing and joking, and within minutes I felt as though I was everyone’s new best friend.
Things moved quickly after that. Within a short time, a doctor arrived and prepared to stitch up my lacerations. As he busied himself, I thought of my hypnosis class. Someone had unlocked the door for my students and informed them about my emergency. I wondered what they were doing in my absence and how I would make up for the lost time. I also realized, as the doctor began organizing vials of Lydocaine (an anesthetic), that I had before me a splendid opportunity to practice everything I had been preaching.
I announced to the doctor that I was a hypnotist, and would not require any anesthetic during the stitching, as I would use self-hypnosis to numb myself. He was dubious, especially about the cut above my eye, where he said the nerve endings might be more sensitive, but I insisted and he agreed. Even though I had never induced anesthesia on myself before, I was completely confident, too shaken by all that had passed to consider any doubts. Trauma had already initiated the trance!
Even though I love hypnosis, and have been called a hypno-junkie, I am not by nature very suggestible nor do I readily enter a somnambulistic state, for my conscious mind is capable of remaining very alert, critical and observant. It is only through diligent practice that I have been able to achieve any depth in hypnosis. I think this has made me both a better hypnotist and hypnosis teacher. It has forced me to examine the process of trance quite carefully, and I understand firsthand how to work with people who aren’t “easy” to hypnotize. Although I have assisted my clients in reaching states of analgesia and anesthesia, I had always wondered how I myself would respond to a painful procedure, and how it would feel not to feel. Now I was to find out.
In my use of self-hypnosis, I created an array of finger signals to help me move to various depths. One particular signal, which I had practiced but never had the opportunity to test, was jiggling the pinky on my left hand-a trigger to anesthetize myself, should this ever be necessary. Unfortunately, as I lay on the emergency room gurney, I completely forgot about that signal!
My state of shock, however, made it very easy to enter light trance. As I went into self-hypnosis, I began to get loopy and giddy, as though I were a little drunk. I focused on my breathing, and then imagined that there was a thick cushion surrounding the areas to be stitched. I told myself that the cushion would absorb any of the pain, leaving me in complete comfort.
The doctor assisting me, a native Egyptian, was very interested in what I was doing, so I got him in on the act. I suggested that he distract me by telling me stories. Since I love Egypt, I asked him to tell me about the beauties of his native country. He enjoyed this idea, and as he prepared the thread and needle for the stitching, he began a long narrative about the Red Sea, with its beautiful beaches and sparkling water
Although I was still in light trance, I was as yet nowhere near anesthesia. Part of my mind remained highly observant. I wanted to pay attention so that I could tell my class about the experience! The needle drew near to my eyes, and then the doctor took the first stitch. It went deep into my flesh, burning and stinging. I felt everything-including the pain!
Curiously, though, the pain didn’t matter. Instead, I permitted every sensation I felt to carry me to a deeper level, and concentrated on making the cushion around me grow thicker. I didn’t move a muscle, and remained completely relaxed. Moreover, I was very happy!
What the hypnosis changed for me during the initial part of the procedure was not my sensation of pain, which remained acute, but rather my interpretation of it, from negative into positive. What would normally have felt like searing stabs now was a perfectly acceptable and interesting sensation&ldots;even a relaxing one! Once again, it was a small shift in perception that changed everything.
I continued to feel each sting of the needle, but as the hypnosis deepened, I pulled further away from the sensations and they became more distant and removed. As this happened, I found that I could no longer focus on the physician’s story of the Red Sea, which I had initially enjoyed. In fact, I found his chatter annoying. It seemed to be pulling me out of myself and making me more aware of what was happening on the outside-including the stitching, when my inclination was to go deep inside myself, becoming more and more internal and muffled.
“Let me know if you need any anesthetic,” the doctor warned as he began stitching the cut over my eye. I just smiled and felt increasingly comfortable. By the time he began working on the third laceration, I noticed a little cluster of medical students watching. The friend who had driven me to the hospital had also entered the cubicle.
“I can’t believe this,” my friend kept exclaiming. “I cannot believe this. You’re smiling! You’re not even flinching! How do you do it?” I was very pleased, because up until this time, he had been skeptical of hypnosis. (To this day, he loves telling people the story of how I just lay there peacefully while the doctor was sewing up my deep gashes.)
Some hours later, when I was all stitched up and able to return to my hypnosis class, I found that my students had kept themselves busy by reviewing the material they had thus far been taught. (To compensate partially for their lost time, I later bought them all William C. Breuer’s* excellent book on medical applications of hypnosis, “Physically Focused Hypnotherapy.”) My students were then given the task of hypnotizing their teacher. They offered excellent suggestions that my face would heal quickly, with minimal bruising and swelling. The facial lacerations healed very quickly indeed, and apart from a minor black eye, there was no bruising whatsoever on my face, even though I had smashed headfirst very hard into the concrete.
Unfortunately, my students’ suggestions, as well as those I gave myself in self-hypnosis, referred only to my face. Thus it is no surprise that during the healing process, the cut on my hand took much more time to repair and gave me a lot of trouble, eventually becoming infected and hurting a great deal. Furthermore, I ended up with multiple deep bruises on much of the rest of my body-just not my face!
I love sharing information about hypnosis. Having this accident offered me a little window of opportunity to demonstrate the ease and power of hypnosis to a few people in the medical world who had been unfamiliar with what we can achieve. I was also impressed by the relatively short time it took for my self-hypnosis to work effectively, especially when one considers that some of the 19th century pioneers in hypnoanesthesia spent up to four hours inducing hypnosis in patients before attempting surgery. It was a perk to have this opportunity. Our skills are always dramatically boosted when we experience results like those we want to induce in our clients.
There was more opportunity to share hypno-talk when I returned to the E.R. a week after the accident to have the stitches removed and the infected finger checked. It was a reunion of sorts; by this time, the formerly detached staff and I were all old friends! There was a teenager in the cubicle next to mine with a broken bone, and a technician had to do something that was painful to her. She screamed miserably. After the procedure was over, the technician stopped by and spoke with me, admitting that the daily ordeals of the E.R. could be taxing. I shared a few hypnosis tips with him on how to distract and relax patients in crisis. He was grateful for the information. I was surprised that he didn’t already know these things.
Not all aspects of my visits to the Hollywood E.R. were uplifting. There was much that remains shocking about this inner-city hospital, from the horror movie playing in the waiting room to the initial appalling lack of concern from the staff. One can hardly imagine an atmosphere more conducive to generating stress and enhancing trauma in people, even without being in situations of physical emergency!
Cudos to all the excellent hypnosis instructors who are teaching us medical hypnosis techniques and encouraging us to interface professionally with a medical world sorely in need of what we have to offer. I can envision a day when all emergency rooms will have a hypnotist on staff, ideally working as patient advocates. How much we can do to reduce fear and stress, eliminate pain and encourage healing!
Meanwhile, should I ever be called back to the set of “E.R.” again, I will now know exactly how to play my part. And the next time I go to an emergency room, I want to get a paycheck!