What’s it like to have umbilical hernia repair surgery?

It’s 11 days after my surgery for umbilical hernia repair and I feel just about back to normal, though I’m still not supposed to lift anything over 20 pounds for another few weeks. In a nutshell, the surgery was a breeze; the recovery not so much, but I have no major complaints. Here’s the long story about how I got here.

I’ll spare you the narrative of my ENTIRE life since my own birth, but I know having an umbilical hernia for me at least goes all the way back to 2004, when I gave birth to our wonderful girl. I had occasionally noticed in the years post-partum that I had a small lump above my belly button. Sometimes. Usually not while lying down, but more prominent while standing. I just guessed it was one of the many ways my body has been touched by the pregnancy experience. It never bothered me.

Until Tuesday, May 1, 2012 (MAY DAY). I had a typical workout in the afternoon which included some basic abdominal crunches. I didn’t notice anything at first, but while I was driving home I was in sudden, throbbing abdominal pain which came in waves and caused me to remember childbirth and breathing exercises. At first I thought it was yet another strike of the norovirus and that I was about to vomit — but the pain stayed constant and I did not, in fact, vomit.

By the time I reached home, I felt and looked at my belly and noticed a larger protrusion than ever before above my belly button, and I knew I was destined for the emergency room. Had I thought about icing in advance, I might have saved myself that trip, but I don’t think I would have had such a fast plan to action had I not visited the ER.

alienIn the lovely Davies ER, the doctor tried to palpate to see if he could press my Sigourney Weaver lump back in (ok, maybe it wasn’t THAT big), but it was way way too tender for him to get near. I was given Dilaudid for the pain, and an ice pack over my belly. When the doctor returned a bit later to see if he could press the protrusion back in, surprise: it had already slipped back in. This made the essential difference, I believe, between having a “strangulated hernia” (a medical emergency requiring immediate surgery) and an “incarcerated hernia” (for which repair can be scheduled at leisure). Fortunately my body opted for the latter. I went home (I walked! Carefully. I felt too nauseated for a car) about two hours later.

I got to meet with the surgeon, Dr. Robert Murray, the next day. He was great, and came quickly to the point. He determined that it was a relatively small tear, that he could stitch it up instead of having to use mesh, and that there was no rush but that I was not to lift anything heavier than 20 pounds until 4-6 weeks after getting it repaired. Since I have been trying to exercise regularly, and since I LOVE holding my 50-lb 7-year-old girl, I opted for as soon as possible. Miraculously and with much aligning of stars, surgery was scheduled for the following Monday, May 7, at (the also lovely) St. Mary’s Medical Center.

I spent Friday getting a blood panel and EKG as preparation for surgery, didn’t eat anything Sunday night, and arrived at St. Mary’s at 8am on Monday morning.

There was very little waiting around — it was my first time at St. Marys and I found it pleasant overall. The rooms were private, the nurses and attendants responsive, and everything seemed efficient. By 9a my IV was in (first try — with much relief and thanks to nurse Debbie), and I was down in the prep area. I met with Dr. Murray and consulted with the anesthesiologist – who then rattled off an intriguing cocktail of complicated sounding drugs that would soon be flowing into my veins.

I was wheeled into the operating room, which was pleasantly chilly and decorated all over with blue tile, as if we were in a bathtub. On the gurney, arms out to sides, the anesthesiologist said “it will be about 10 seconds.” I looked at the clock — 9:30 — and that was that.

Suddenly, I was told to breathe in through a mask (oxygen?) and was back in the post-op room – the same room as the pre-op room. The clock said 10:30.

I was asked my name – several times through the process – was asked about pain (none at that time) and waited around being generally out of it for a bit. I looked at my belly, which was patched with gauze and a 4″x4″ plastic adhesive. I was told not to scratch my eyes. Suddenly it was 11:15. I was wheeled back up to my room, where my lovely wife Leanne was waiting for me.

That’s all it took — I eschewed Vicodin as a pain-killer since it depresses me, and favored Percocet, which I had not tried before. I was back home by 1p. The first day was fine — almost pleasant.

I felt a bit sea-sick lying down to sleep and had a disturbed rest. I kept feeling like I was biting my tongue (a ramification of pain killers?) and started to experience significant pain. I took Percocet and Zofran at least every four hours. The next day was not so great. I awoke to find my gauze pad completely bloody, and was in a lot of pain as if there were a knife in my stomach. It was hard to sit up from lying down. I felt like I really needed to roll over, then stand from being sideways. I must have had about 8 Percocet in the first day post-op and didn’t feel like it had any effect. I called the doctor about the bloody gauze – I was afraid I would never stop bleeding – and got an appointment for Thursday.

Dr. Murray changed the bandage on Thursday and assured me it was going well, but that I should remove the bandage on Saturday because I was evidently allergic to the plastic cover. He also told me I needed to be taking Ibuprofen together with the Percocet — something I was not told before. I’m not sure if doing this for the next couple of days or if just the passage of time made the pain start to ease.

It was after that that I noticed the hives all over my belly. Still not sure if this was because of the Percocet or the plastic. And my bowels hadn’t worked for – well – days, despite Colace.

Things started to get better on Saturday and I pitched the Percocet and was excited to take off the bandage, having fully forgotten about steristrips. The steristrips came off by Monday, and I used a little antibiotic and a bandaid for the next week.

The area looked bloody and spotted with rash for the first few days, but today I just have a slightly swollen red line around the rim of my navel where the surgeon inserted the tiny tools. I don’t see any trace of infection, which I had been worried about.

The really unpleasant part of post-op included my bowels, as a side-effect of the pain medication. I had never had such pain getting started again … The Colace seemed to do nothing. I tried some laxatives upon the advice of my mom, which worked fine — a couple days later. It seemed to take my body awhile to react to these medications. If I were to do this over again, I would have asked if I could have started the stool-softener process in advance of surgery.

Which brings us today, 11 days post-op. I probably won’t wear a bandaid by tomorrow and I only feel the smallest bit of a twinge — a little tiny pinch, really — on my navel. One disconcerting thing is a bit of swelling and hardness around my whole navel, almost as if I still have a hernia and in fact as if it has grown. I gather this is normal post-op and is a sort of swelling and healing that will eventually subside. I have a checkup with the surgeon in 10 days and after that I’m expecting the go-or-no-go for lifting and carrying things and generally exercising back to normal again.

So my key recommendations for you, dear readers, are these:

  1. Feeling a hernia? Try ice first. But of course, also go to the emergency room if you need to.
  2. Talk in advance with your surgeon about pain medications. Be clear not only on what you want, if you have a preference, but how to use it and with what other medications.
  3. Ask in advance what to expect from the bandaging — bleeding OK?
  4. Plan for constipation: is it OK to take stool softeners in advance? I don’t know the answer…
  5. Uber is a great way to get to and from your surgeries. Costs a bit more, but worth it.
  6. Have amazing friends lined up to drive and deliver things (Leanne, Liz, Rob, David… hugs).

Things really went well as a whole, and I’m looking forward to being stronger than ever in a few weeks when I can start exercising again. Thanks for witnessing this part of my life story and I hope it brings some comfort if you are facing the same experience.

Update — May 2013:  I’ve been amazed and gratified at the dozens and dozens of comments here and the generosity of sharing of experiences. It’s now a year post-surgery, and I’m as strong as ever if not stronger.

Update — September 2014: Still going strong.  Thanks all for sharing your own experiences in the comments!

 

 

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