A young couple brought their 10-year-old son in yesterday for a follow-up appointment after a polysomnogram. Unfortunately, the boy was diagnosed with obstructive sleep apnea. We were discussing his treatment when the child asked if there was anything that could be done for his “bad dreams.”
The parents looked at each other and then at their son in surprise. He had not shared his bad dreams with them. His father admitted it had been harder to get his son to go to bed lately. He also noted that the child did not want to go upstairs to his bedroom alone.
I asked the youngster about his dreams. With tears in his eyes, he said all he can think about is the “Boston bombing,” and added before that, all he could think about was “Sandy Hook.” His parents asked how he knew about these events, as they had intentionally kept him from watching the news on television.
Apparently, the child was waking during the night and turning on the television in his bedroom. Of course, he was hoping to find something fun to watch, but he noted “there was something about it on every channel.”
The patient found he was getting caught up in the story, and could not stop watching. Then after returning to bed he had nightmares someone was going to come to his school and hurt the children there.
This was a sad moment for all of the adults in the room as we recognized this child’s innocence was tarnished from the tragic events that had transpired. I think about how I myself had been transfixed by the television at every free moment. These were such sad events to watch, but at least with my life experience I know that bad things sometimes happen to good people.
As I looked at the child in front of me, I wondered what I should say. We agreed that getting up at night and watching television is not good idea for many reasons. In my head I thought, ‘because I don’t want you to see any more of this when no one is around to help you figure it out’.
I remembered the gruesome images, some of children just like this child, that were being shown over and over again day after day on television. I wondered how many children were privy to the events of the last two weeks, and the violent crimes before these. How many are going to bed and having nightmares?
As healthcare providers, we are often the first to hear about the nightmares, PTSD and grief that our patients experience after horrific events. Are we mentally prepared to discuss these issues?
Although we cannot make evil go away in this world, we can listen to our patients, provide a reassuring glance and even give a hug when needed.
As we discussed the child’s fears, he remarked that some of these events happened in small towns that were not well known. I asked him what scared him the most. The patient responded, “Going to school,” where he would be away from his parents — his primary sense of safety.
What a sad world when a child is afraid to go to school. How can children learn when they are concerned that someone might come and hurt them there? My heart was really broken after hearing his story.
The parents agreed to find someone their child can talk to about these issues. The child promised he will not get up anymore and watch TV during the night, and said he will talk to his parents when he feels afraid.
I’m writing about my experience in the hopes that you will give some thought to what you might say when you hear these stories. I have to admit that I felt a little unprepared for this conversation.
Have you had any patients that are suffering from anxiety over recent events in the world? Share your experiences.
Sharon M. O’Brien, MPAS, PA-C, works at Presbyterian Sleep Health in Charlotte, N.C. Her main interest is helping patients understand the importance of sleep hygiene and the impact of sleep on health.