A hernia is one of those conditions that I probably misunderstood as a child. I had older male relatives that had suffered through one or two, and remember the recovery involving a sustained period of avoiding heavy lifting. I probably thought it had to do with your back. “Darling, don’t lift that suitcase – your hernia!” I had heard multiple women yell at their husbands. Perhaps I had confused it with sciatica – a common mistake I’m sure since they both end in ‘a’ and sound like Greek Mythology heroes. (Wasn’t Hernia the name of Zeus’ wife?)
The truth is actually more….gross. A hernia occurs when an organ or fatty tissue squeezes through a hole in your muscle wall in various places throughout your body. For a while, it might poke through on occasion without doing much harm (“Pardon me, is that a hernia in your abdomen, or are you just happy to see me?”), but if the organ or tissue pokes through far enough to get stuck in your muscle wall, it can become strangulated and lose blood flow and start to die, causing extreme pain and an emergency situation to be repaired.
I have recently become more of an expert on hernias since the diagnosis of my own several weeks ago; a diagnosis which dovetailed my 40th birthday, and which provided me a hearty handshake and introduction to middle age. “Welcome,” said my hernia, “to the phase of your life where you eat high fiber muffins, drink decaf green tea, and start collecting a laundry list of embarrassing minor medical diagnoses. Enjoy your stay.”
The type of hernia that I had was an inguinal or groin, which most commonly affects men. This made me briefly question my femininity, especially upon relating the news to my ex-husband who charmingly questioned whether I had in fact grown a pair of testicles since we had divorced – a notion that no doubt would be relieving and satisfying to him.
Whether I was genetically prone to hernias or whether I had torn a muscle during pregnancy was a question I chose to answer by allowing the blame to fall squarely on the shoulders of my two children who had certainly ruined my body in other ways, as well.
When discussing treatment options with my surgeon, he informed me that I could repair the hernia with surgery right away or ‘wait for a while’ but the idea of greeting my naked self each morning with an odd lump under my skin that I now knew was a piece of my intestines poking out of my groin convinced me to schedule the operation. Because….yuck.
The surgery was scheduled for late in the afternoon, but I was advised to arrive two hours early in order to sit in the waiting room for an extended period of time while I turned the pages of a tattered People magazine from several months ago and observed an assortment of my co-patriot patients in various stages of anxiety and apprehension, straining to hear the news on the wall-mounted flat screen TV’s that were ‘turned down in consideration of others’.
My husband and two boys accompanied me to the hospital where I was given a unique patient number that could be tracked on a monitor on the wall of the waiting room. Depending on the color of the bar that was labeled with my number, my family could follow my progress. A yellow bar meant ‘Just Arrived’. A green bar meant ‘In Procedure’ and a blue bar indicated I was ‘In Recovery’. I was comforted by the fact that there was no black bar, which likely could have meant ‘On the Way to the Morgue.’
Once the waiting in the waiting room was done, I was led back to the ‘pre-op’ or staging area, where I was permitted to wait some more, this time dressed in a flimsy hospital gown that opened in the back. The fact that my intended surgery site was on the front didn’t seem to bother anyone.
I was invited to lay in a bed with wheels behind a half closed curtain as an assembly line of doctors and nurses marched in and out, each quizzing me on my name and birth date to the point where I began making mistakes in my anxiousness. I was told my surgery would begin in an hour. The fact that there was nothing to do but lay there and imagine multiple scenarios of surgical mistakes or accidents gave me plenty of time to dwell on every smell, every noise and every person who walked through. The laughing nurses down the hall. The computers set up at each bay with the words ‘Authorized Use Only’ in an ominous and continuous scroll on the screens. I looked across the hall to the curtained room there and the woman lying in a very similar state to my own. ‘What are YOU in for?’ I wanted to call, but that seemed inappropriate. I thought about asking for a magazine, as I noticed a rack of more old People’s on the wall, but then I started thinking about how many other patients with unknown diseases may have touched them and changed my mind.
Eventually I was asked to denote the side of my body that had the hernia with a purple marker. This decidedly low tech approach to ensure my doctor didn’t open me up on the wrong side did nothing to ease my mind. As I watched the ink spread out on my skin, I began to panic it would disappear by the time I was wheeled into the operating room, where I would be sedated and unable to confirm which side to repair. Perhaps the doctors would open me up on the wrong side, realize their mistake, hastily change course and hope I didn’t notice post-op. I had just gotten to the lawsuit settlement numbers in my malpractice fantasy when the anesthesia must have kicked in, because I remember nothing until I woke up in recovery, with both my hernia and my faith in modern medicine repaired.