“The old sweater”
Here is my story of hernia surgery (times two). If you are looking for some ideas to help with post surgery, scroll to the bottom.Otherwise, I hope this helps with your decision, regarding surgery, or gives you some idea of what to expect.
I had open umbilical hernia surgery, without mesh, 8 years ago, after the birth of my second baby boy who weighed 9lbs 8oz at birth. I was unaware I had a hernia until the ultrasound technologist alerted me to it during a routine pregnancy ultrasound check, with my second boy. He asked me to lift up my head a few times, as he was probing around with the ultrasound wand. He casually said, “Hey, you know you have a hernia here? You’ll need to deal with this post-pregnancy.” I was left feeling a strange sense of relief, understanding why I’d been SO sensitive around my navel since delivering my first boy weighing in at a whopping 9lb 6oz. I would cringe when anyone came near my belly button area and felt continual discomfort and pain, which I referenced simply to post-pregnancy body and literally the growing pains of “being a Mom”.
Feeling gratitude to this ultra sound tech, I followed up with the surgeon a year after my second boy’s birth. I had the surgery when my son was 18months, at the beginning of July. It was challenging, and anyone going through it with young children will need help. My father-in-law stayed with us for a week, which was mandatory. Emotionally, it was hard not to lift my big, bouncy child up into my arms for at least 6 weeks (do not lift more than 10 lbs!), especially when I looked healthy to him. The recovery took more like 3 months to feel fully capable of stretching in a backbend and pushing myself fully into activity. It was certainly worth going through with the surgery for the years to come. I was able to practice yoga, dance, run, climb, hike, ski, bike, swim, and anything else I desired physically without pain. I could join into activities with my children and let go of the the nauseous twangs, weakness in my abdomen, and sensitivity in my navel. I was so grateful for the surgery. It made such a difference to the quality of my life.
A year and a half ago I felt the distant, yet familiar navel pain return. It takes a bit of your breath away, somehow. Your core is compromised and feels weakened. I was somewhat in denial and didn’t even want to feel around my navel area, even though I recognized the sensation. I got the courage to touch my bellybutton and there was a bulge. My hernia was back.
I booked a GP appointment, reluctantly hoping it would be uneventful. I saw an intern, since my regular doctor was away, and he confirmed that I had an umbilical hernia (again). I asked him if I could please be referred back to my original surgeon, Dr. Hayashi, who I regarded highly and is an outstanding surgeon.
I had an ultrasound and trekked down to the familiar Dr. Hayashi’s office. He listened to me describing my symptoms, felt around my navel, and after having seen the ultrasound he took a piece of paper towel from the dispenser, tore parts of it and said, “These are your abdominal muscles since pregnancy. They’ve been weakened and stretched. Your abs are like an old sweater.” I smiled (and wanted to cry) in an accepting kind of way. He suggested that he could fix the hernia again or I could see a plastic surgeon and have a full abdominoplasty (tummy tuck) to deal with the separation in my abdominal muscles (diastasis recti) since he was worried about this separation causing the hernia to recur again.
NOTE: I did pay a fee and consult with a plastic surgeon. The frustration is that this surgery is not covered by health care in Canada, even though the reason for surgery is not cosmetic. I asked if I could skip the ‘tummy tuck’ part and just have the separation and hernia repair, but this is not an option. I am going to write some letters and advocate in this area, as it compromises a woman’s quality of life and the plastic surgery is unaffordable for many.
In the end, after more than a year of consults with two other surgeons, research on the internet, two more visits with Dr. Hayashi, and an emergency visit to the hospital to help me dislodge my hernia, I decided to book surgery with Dr. Hayashi. The emergency doctor was adamant that I get the surgery done as soon as possible. He said, “You aren’t getting any younger and hernias will not heal themselves. You need this repaired ASAP.” With consultation from Dr. Hayashi and my own wishes not to use mesh (I read and heard of too many stories of people having issues with mesh and later having it removed) I opted for open umbilical hernia surgery, without mesh. I hoped that my ‘old sweater’ would get stitched up tight and stay darned for good. I was on a cancellation list and recently had the surgery a week ago – November 26th, 2018.
Previous to the surgery, I was dealing with a lot of discomfort and avoiding many strenuous activities that would engage my core. I often had to lie on the floor at the end of the day and spend up to an hour pressing my belly button to release the trapped tissue. I would often feel nauseous, deal with pain, and feel a tightness around my abdomen that made me feel out of breath. It was a constant niggling feeling and I would adjust low wasted pants to avoid pressure into my navel. I felt more relief when I had a tight waistband around my middle, or had an opportunity to lie down for a while and reduce the pressure on my abdomen. I honestly put on an old pair of spanx, in desperation, before going to work for quite some time. When you’re dreaming of wearing a corset, it’s time to get on the operating table!
I had the surgery a week ago and here’s a recap of that time so far. When I “came to”, I have a vague recollection of Dr. Hayashi leaning by my bedside saying something like, “… I did my best to mend the old sweater..” I smiled in gratitude, nodded, and if I said something to him I don’t remember what it was. He left and the nurse asked how I felt for pain. I think it was about a 7 or 8. I felt raw and sore. I was shivering. I needed slightly more pain medication. Before I knew it the nurse dressed me into my clothes (bring a button up shirt, slip-on shoes and comfy/not tight pants) and wanted me to get into the wheelchair. She helped me to get out of bed, which became my greatest challenge for the next few days. She helped me into the wheelchair and wheeled me down the elevator out to my car. I don’t remember much about getting into the car and the ride home. My husband picked up my pain medication (tramacet) and we headed home. I wasn’t comfortable, through the bumps and turns, but through the haze of the wearing off anaesthetic, local anaesthetic and whatever else I was given I could handle it.
The first night was a complete blur of fretful sleep, but I managed. It’s really important to have someone around to help you for 24 hours (even 48) after surgery. It was much easier having older children this time around, especially to help me in and out of bed. This was challenging: try to get yourself on to your side and then push up with your arm as you slowly lower your legs. I never quite managed this bed maneuver gracefully and despite wanting to laugh at myself at how ridiculous I looked (like a beached whale?) it hurt too much to laugh. All I know is that I let out a lot of sighing, moaning, and holding my breath to avoid any further pain to my core.
For the first couple of days make sure to stay on top of your pain medication. You feel intensely raw and very sore for the first three days, or more. Another really important part of recovery is using some sort of stool softener, since the pain medication can cause constipation. I took Senoket, as suggested by a friend. I was so afraid of getting too constipated that I may have taken a little much of the Senoket on the second day. By the third day I spent a lot of the day in the bathroom, which was tough, and good, all in one. I tried to get off of the tramacet by day 3, but have used a small amount since then, when needed.
Use lots of pillows and create a gentle upright position to rest and sleep. It’s also nice to have a pillow on your belly to hug, or feel secure, as you’re falling asleep. On day 4, I was able to roll somewhat sideways, as I’m normally a side sleeper. I put a pillow between my knees and used it to support my abdomen. On day 7 I’m still using pillows behind my back to sleep mostly upright. Last night I tried to lay almost flat, but it was so uncomfortable. Definitely used the propped up pillows as long as you need. It’s more comfortable for the core area.
I was able to shower the day after surgery, with bandages over my steri strips and sutures. I put a fresh bandage over the area for the following three days and on day 5 I kept the bandage off and was careful not to let clothes rub on the area. In the next fews days I’m able to pull off the steri-strips.
Walking is good for healing. On day 4, I went outside in the evening (when it was dark) and walked about 1/2 a km, very slowly. Slip on shoes are a must as well! Day 5 I may have walked 3/4 of a km and the last two days, maybe a slow 1km. I’m pretty tired out by the evening and don’t have much stamina.
My suggestion for surgery preparation, if you could buy ONE thing, is treat yourself to a cozy, fun pair of slippers (definitely slip-on). I ordered a fluffy pair of UGGs, on sale, that I am so relieved to slide on. You will be happy you did!
I will be healing for 4 weeks, with light activity and no heavy lifting. I teach dance, so aim to be in the strongest condition I can. I don’t want to compromise my healing, since I’ve had the hernia recur before, still have some abdominal separation, and didn’t use mesh (which can lessen recurrence, but possibly cause other problems). With the addition of Christmas Break, I’ll have 6 weeks to slowly get back into regular activities and get back to work. I’ll keep you posted!
I hope that, if anything, this story gives you some hope that the surgery is worth it and so important for self-care. It’s so common, as a full-time working Mom, to put things off, deal with the pain, make do, underplay the health issue, and carry on serving everyone around us. I am so good at this. I feel guilt around the work I ‘should’ be doing in every role I play, but to put in a chunk of time to heal so that I’m stronger in the end is worth it. If you are going through something similar, I wish you much healing, strength and loving-kindness in your journey. It’s not easy to feel setback, when you’ve had surgery, but it is so worth it. Take the time. Do it. Put yourself first. We’re in this together! Cheers to women, old, holey sweaters, and good stitching!