The funny thing about hernias — and this takes into account all the turn-your-head-and-cough jokes — is that you don’t realize that you’ve got one until long after it happened. So, whether it was that last deadlift at the gym, the time helped push your neighbor’s car out of a snowbank, or the day you hauled your wet kid kicking and screaming out of the bath, you’ll never know the cause. The not so funny thing about them is you’ll feel it — and the inevitable stab of the aging process, of the beginning of your body’s breakdown — later, when you least expect it.
I felt my first sensation was when I began upping my mileage for half-marathon training. It started with a tingling sensation right up where my leg meets my trunk. The general area would start ringing after I had warmed up, and the only thing that made it feel better was either high-stepping and arching big circles with my knees, or taking my finger and jamming it into my groin, the latter of which really isn’t an option in public.
At first, I ignored it. I could handle it, right? I landscaped the yard like a maniac. I made epic Costco runs hauling tons of bulk goods into my home. But it wasn’t until had a giant baby who turned into a big toddler that I realized I couldn’t ignore the dull ache anymore. Some things stubbornness can’t cure. Who knew?
I called my general practitioner and he called it almost immediately: inguinal hernia. According to the FDA, inguinal hernias are extremely common. More than a million hernia repairs are performed each year, and about eight in ten of them are of the inguinal variety. They occur because the lower layers of the abdominal wall get pretty thin, and if they tear via any number of everyday motions, an organ will begin to poke through the hole. Typically, it’s the small intestine that pops out, and, as my doctor told me, while you can push it back in, the tear is not going to get any better on its own.
That means next step is visiting a specialist — and if you didn’t have a hernia before hitting this office, you’ll have one by the time you leave. However good your specialist’s bedside manner might be, he’s still likely to jam his finger up your wound so hard, you’ll see stars. And when he’s done checking that groin, he’ll knock on door number two, too. Wouldn’t you know it: When he was done, I had two hernias.
There’s both good and bad news of having a pair of hernias. The bad news might seem obvious: you need to take into account the added medical costs of repairing two instead of one. (That said, it’s a relative steal, since you don’t have to pay for an anesthesiologist twice) The good news is that you can get both hernias repaired at the same time, and while there’s no warranty coverage on this kind of service, they say your repaired innards will be stronger than your natural figure ever was. Not a bad deal, right?
After the specialist outlined the surgical procedure, I took home my “So You Have a Hernia” pamphlet to weigh my options, which involved talking to every guy I knew. For such a popular surgery, it was surprising that I couldn’t find anyone in my friend list who had had it performed. Some family members had hernias — which wasn’t surprising because abdominal weakness is highly hereditary — but none had gotten theirs fixed. And I did have friends-of-friends who had opted for repair, but their grapevine told me that the surgery didn’t seem to help much.
So I dwelled, and ached, and ached, and dwelled until, eventually, I decided — through the help of some great health insurance I’ve backed into — that surgery was the right choice. My deciding factor was that I was going to take it slow in coming back. That, for me, meant three full days in bed, two more days of doing pretty much nothing whatsoever, and then working from home after that (because that’s what I do, anyhow). Spoiler alert: It worked. I have two optimally repaired hernias, and they don’t ache a bit.
That feat is only impressive after you learn what they do to repair this common calamity. The laparoscopic surgery — for which you need to be knocked out cold — involves a small incision inside your belly button and about four inches to the left or right of your navel (above wherever you’ve got a tear). From there, they inflate your entire abdominal cavity like a balloon and perform the surgery entirely with robotic tools. After making their way down your body to the tender spot, the robo-doc pushes your intestines back where they belong, unfurls a plastic mesh over the hole, and tacks everything in place using a dissolvable, plastic stitches. Then they stitch you up, turn off the loopy juice, and send you to recovery.
I won’t lie: I woke up during the surgery. I can still remember the ceiling and the doctor and his assistants talking. Nothing hurt, but man do I wish I didn’t have that memory. Other than the two marks it’s left on either side of my belly button, that may be what scarred me most.
Over the next year, as the mesh took hold (your body’s tissue grows over it) and the tacks dissolved (you literally feel like you have a stitch in your side), I felt a bit of discomfort here and there. But now, I can lift and lunge, run and chase, without favoring one side or opting out of an activity. Middle age felt normal and I feel like a dad again.