Surgery, Life, Health and Courage

Apparently, like so many women, I herniated my belly button during childbirth eight years ago. At first, I thought it was just that usual, “I used to have an innie, but now I have an outie,” thing. But over the years, that outie popped out further and further. Not so cute.

I admit, I was told by more than one doctor that eventually, I would have to get it fixed. But what really made me understand that something had to change, and fast, was that I was incurring increasingly frequent bouts of lower back pain. After an acute, two-day, flat-on-my-back episode several weeks ago, my astute chiropractor, Dr. Loretta French, explained to me how the lack of abdominal muscle strength caused by the hernia (i.e. no core!) was causing me to overuse various muscles in my lower back. Hence, the weakness and vulnerability there.

I can’t tell you how happy this made me. Seriously. I have not been able to sustain a workout regimen for longer than a few months without injuring myself since I had my son. I went out the next day and scheduled an appointment to see a surgeon. Finally, an explanation for the chronic problems I’d been having since giving birth! I had just thought, OK, I had a baby, now I’m broken… But no! It did not have to be this way! Now I could see a light at the end of the tunnel. So I expedited the process, and this past Tuesday, I had the outpatient surgery. It went well, and I’ve been slowly recovering at home, gradually getting back to my regular work…

Of course, the experience brought up a few things, and of course, I want to share them with you.

First of all, I have to say, it’s very different being on the receiving end of medical services than it is being the care partner of a patient. I fulfilled that latter role for over twenty years with my husband Ivor, before he finally passed away in October of 2009, due to complications of his lifelong, chronic illness, sickle cell anemia. During our decades together, Ivor and I logged countless hours in emergency rooms, intensive care units and regular hospital wards. We crossed paths with untold numbers of nurses, interns, residents, specialists, technicians, assistants, pharmacists, therapists… I found most of them to be caring, dedicated and skilled, although over the years, we did have the misfortune to meet more than a few who were plagued by cynicism, overwork, negative presumptions about Ivor or his illness, or just plain battle fatigue. We learned to be pro-active, articulate and self-protective.

We were a team.

Now my surgery was no where near the harrowing, life-threatening, repeated incidents Ivor had to endure over the years. Having not let my condition progress too far, the procedure was still at the semi-elective stage, and besides that one problem, I’m basically strong and healthy, so I had no other risk factors going into surgery. Predictably, there were no complications. But things did get a little weird for me when, a half hour before the procedure was to begin, the anaesthesiologist described how he would be putting me to sleep with some medication via my IV, and then inserting the tube down my throat for the general anaesthesia. The what? THE WHAT? How had I missed that??

Intubated. The thing that happens when you’re so weak from pneumonia that you can’t breathe on your own. When one of your major body systems can’t function and you need mechanical support. When you are near death. Tube down my throat? I acted calm, but inside I was filled with all of the most negative associations. So much so, that when it came time for them to administer the first injection, the anaesthesiologist asked me if my heart always beat that fast, or was I just nervous. I said, I’m very nervous. My kind surgeon, Dr. Sas, offered to hold my hand. I squeezed it hard. But honestly, when the medicine began to hit, I remember saying, “Oh yes, this will work just fine.” And the next thing I remember, I was waking up in recovery.

Surgery is a kind of miracle of faith and trust. You put your life in the hands of doctors and nurses who cut into you to change your body, so you may live a better life. You have faith that when you go to sleep, you will in fact, wake up better than before. That you will, in fact, wake up! That you won’t wake up attached to some metallic, wired apparatus in a hidden room somewhere, with alien creatures performing strange sexual experiments on your helpless body (yeah, I went there). Or that you won’t end up at the end of the tunnel of light with your dear, departed husband (I love you honey, but I’m just not ready to be dead yet). All these thoughts and more were crowded out of my brain by the flood of endorphin producing chemicals that do whatever else it is they did to mercifully blank out my consciousness, allowing those talented and caring professionals to exert their skills on me.

I feel grateful that I don’t have to do this on a regular basis, and I feel awe and respect for those who do. Living with a chronic or life threatening illness enters you into an ongoing ride on the faith, trust, courage, strength, and fear train. Repeated challenges to one’s inner fortitude take almost as much, if not more energy, than the physical toll of the medical condition and its treatment.

The sacred bond between patient, doctor and all members of the support team (including the care partners) is one that I will always honor. I have lived many sides of it, and know of its profound impact on the souls of all who are involved. Being part of this circuit has given me an appreciation for the preciousness of each moment of life and good health. I am deeply grateful for my experience.

And yes, I have an innie again…

Photo courtesy of otisarchives 1


11 Comments to “Surgery, Life, Health and Courage”

  1. Congrats in recovering your innie!

  2. Deb, thanks for that post. I recently went to the doctor with Felix for a check up and asked on the way out about this breast bone that is sort of sticking out between my ribs and it giving be breathing difficulties when I bend down! The doctor felt it and said calmy “Oh that bone is broken. must have happened during your pregnancy. the baby probably kicked it. not much you can do about it now” – I was puzzled. I mean my first thought was “BROKEN – well then I need an operation to fix it of course” but the doctor’s attitude was just “whatever. live with your bone sticking out. you´re past 40 anyway” so I walked out of the office with my bone sticking out like your belly button and tried to live with it. But now after your post I’m more like.” NO way – I demand attention and will seek advice and a second opinion”.

  3. Hi Mette,
    I’m glad you’re feeling inspired to be proactive after reading this!
    It is amazing to me just how much my physical condition affects my state of mind. I was really beginning to settle for the notion that I just wasn’t ever going to be OK after having a child. “This is my new, after-childbirth body, and it’s really a kind of broken down version of the old one,” was my new normal. Finding out that there was an actual reason for years of chronic low-back pain and a general sense of physical vulnerability – connecting those dots with a solution… WOW! What a feeling of liberation. Is it any wonder I was genuinely excited to have this surgery?!! I know some thought I was crazy, but seriously, I can’t wait until I fully recover and can start working out again…

  4. Great blog, Deb. Having had four abdominal surgeries I can relate. You are right and put it so well: “surgery is a kind of miracle of faith and trust.” the whole idea of allowing yourself to be put under, losing time, and coming to in a new location transformed in some way– good or maybe not so good– forces one to let go of outcomes in ways unimaginable. You know that you will never know the full story of what happened while you were lost in space. So glad that your surgery went smoothly.

    • Thanks Shirley…
      Yes, you DEFINITELY know what I’m talking about. You are so right when you say, “You know that you will never know the full story of what happened while you were lost in space.”
      I keep thinking that the doctors and nurses were talking about where they were going on vacation, but I can’t remember if that really happened or if I just saw it on a TV show once.

      So MUCH letting go… Yeah, I’m glad things went well, too, although I’m wishing the recovery would go quicker. I hope my impatience doesn’t get the best of me – I really don’t want to screw up this healing process!!

  5. Thanks for posting this, Deb, and I’m glad to hear that you’re recovering well so far. Sadly, I think I’m eventually going to have the SAME surgery!! Yup. That little dude pressed so hard on the middle of my belly that it popped – I even remember the day it happened, and it hurt so badly! I, too, feel a bit broken post-pregnancy. I have tendonitis in both wrists (De Quervain’s tenosynovitis) that won’t go away. It was acute in December and I had cortisone shots in both wrists which allowed me to use my hands again (write, type, etc., not to mention pick up the baby) before I went back to work. But as Leo gets heavier, it’s just come back. Well, I don’t want to complain too much because I love my life as a mom, and I love my son, but I, too, hope to recover some time like you, to get back to the yoga practice I love, rebuild my core, and my forearm and wrist strength, too.

    • Glad you weighed in on this, Shash…
      Yes, the physical changes from pregnancy and childbirth are truly profound. They seem to go hand in hand with the radical alteration of our identity into that of MOTHER. There’s certainly an element of sacrifice there, and not altogether artificial, I might add! It’s just part of the package – pregnancy and labor (a huge challenge all around), sleep deprivation, lessening of freedom and flexibility in every day life… it just goes on and on.
      But while the selflessness has really given me a new perspective on my priorities in life and informed all my life choices (and I too adore my son and my life as his mom), at a certain point, I believe things can go awry if they go too off-balance. I have no desire to suffer in a constant state of martyrdom, and I don’t think we serve ourselves or our children by doing that. So yes, we owe it to ourselves to be the best we can be! And if that means surgery, or therapy of any kind (physical, psychological, spiritual), then I say YES! Our kids will thank us…

      • Oh, and PS… as surgeries go, repair of an umbilical hernia is apparently one of the most routine procedures around. I was told this repeatedly by every doctor I consulted about this thing, and if my experience is any indication, it’s true… I hope it helps to hear that!

  6. Oh, and Mette, that rib thing sounds crazy! I hope you can get it fixed. xoxo

  7. Lovely post. Surgery is an almost mystical thing, isn’t it. Other people putting their hands inside your body, breaking the social boundary of the skin. I have a horrible memory of having my tonsils out when i was seven (I was desperately sick from the anaesthetic, and totally freaked out by the hospital environment). Fervently hope I never have to go under the knife again. Enjoy your innie.
    cheers, Beth

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