I got a dangerous surgery at 16 to stop excessive facial blushing, and it ruined my life. Decades later, I can't feel emotions.


headshot of John Larsen drinking coffee

John Larsen after his facial-blushing surgery.Courtesy of John Larsen

  • When he was a kid, he blushed a lot and had sweaty palms — more than your average teen.

  • At 16, he got an endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy to correct his excessive facial blushing.

  • He’s now 40 and still suffering the side effects from the surgery; he can’t feel emotions.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with John Larsen. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Growing up, I was outgoing and enjoyed being in front of people, but as I reached adolescence, I became increasingly aware of a problem.

I’d turn beet-red in embarrassing situations.

As a teenager, that was problematic and limiting. I couldn’t do the things I wanted to do: feel comfortable approaching a girl, speak in front of the class, do drama. I’d go crimson every time.

I also had excessively sweaty palms. Together, these things made me feel even more self-conscious than your usual teen. I felt depressed.

To make matters worse, other kids at school would notice and comment: “Oh, my God, you’re so red. What’s wrong with you?”

I tried beta blockers first

At first, my doctor prescribed beta blockers. They slow your heart rate and can reduce facial redness. They worked for a while, but I wasn’t keen on taking a pill for the rest of my life that could have side effects.

That’s when I first read about endoscopic thoracic sympathectomies.

The surgery is most often sought to mitigate excessive sweating (usually of the palms), but sometimes it’s used for facial blushing. I thought it’d be great to deal with my uncomfortably sweaty palms. But my primary reason was the facial flushing. I just wanted it to stop holding me back. I persuaded my mom to go with me for a consultation. I was 15.

I told my primary-care doctor about ETS surgery, and they looked into it for me. They referred me to a dermatologist who assessed the issues arising from my blushing and sweating. I was then referred to a specialist surgeon who dealt specifically in the thoracic region of the body.

Mom was cautious and a little worried. But from what we were reading, the procedure seemed safe. No mother wants to see her child suffer. She was supportive based on the information we learned from the doctor and our reading.

The surgeon glossed over the side effects like they were nothing to worry about. He briefly mentioned I might get some excessive sweating in other parts of my body. That was about it.

By the time I got the surgery, I was 16. It involves deflating the lungs one at a time, then destroying a portion of the sympathetic nerve trunk in the thoracic region, which disrupts neural messages that give the brain signals about emotional reactions, environmental changes such as temperature, and triggers including fight or flight.

The side effects have lasted decades

The surgery took less than an hour, and it has changed my whole life. I’m 40 now and still experiencing weird side effects — none of which were disclosed beforehand.

In fairness, my hands are now mostly dry. And the facial flushing initially improved, though it wasn’t completely resolved. At the time, I was devastated about that. I’d wanted to get my life back. It’d come to be the least of my worries.

The lifelong side effects of ETS surgery have been brutal.

I learned that, for some, cutting the sympathetic nerve reduces responses to strong emotions, such as fear or laughter. I’m now robotic in my emotional states. There’s an ever-present fog; I feel disassociated. ETS has been compared to a modern-day lobotomy by some who’ve suffered similar side effects as me.

I feel robbed of my adult emotions. But I know I’m missing something. It’s often pointed out by those around me.

There are other barbaric side effects, such as thermal dysregulation. I have varying body temperatures occurring at once. It’s a never-ending battle. There are bed stains from how much I sweat at night — especially on my neck, back, and chest. This happens even when it’s cold.

I’m also left with low blood pressure, which affects my heart rate. It has created some deeply unpleasant situations, especially in my early 20s. My resting heart rate was sitting at that of a professional athlete. I’d wake up feeling like I was going to die, with terrible palpitations. My heart would skip beats. I spent a lot of the time feeling frightened. It took awhile for that to get better.

I’ve spoken with my primary-care doctors over the years, but they have limited knowledge of my condition and no practical ways to mitigate these side effects. I’ve also seen specialists such as cardiologists. But I remain largely in the dark and continue to suffer.

I’ve had to live with the decision I made ignorantly as a teenager my whole life. I’m not completely distraught, but I’m incomplete.

Now I realize the facial blushing I experienced as a teen was the least of my problems. I wanted a fix for everything, but some things don’t need a fix. It comes down to accepting yourself.

Read the original article on Business Insider



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