I had an umbilical hernia repair with mesh in September 2017, having had a hernia and diastasis recti for five years. You can read about the diastasis and my experience during those five years here.
I had an initial meeting with a consultant which was no longer than ten minutes; in this consultation he looked at my belly and confirmed I would be having an operation within six weeks. Up to this point I had been expecting to be told I was making a fuss over nothing, and to stop wasting precious NHS resources! When the consultant announced there would be an operation, I asked for more information about recovery time and so on, but the information I received was not terribly helpful. I was told it would be day surgery, but that I definitely wouldn’t be able to drive myself home (I don’t even drive anyway), and that recovery time would be “wait and see” – not very useful when you’re a single parent and need to get your child to and from school every day!
When I received my date for surgery I arranged for S to stay with a friend for the first few nights after my operation, and for my sister to spend the first night with me since one is not supposed to be left unattended after a general anaesthetic. As it happened though, the hernia got stuck about a week before the operation and I ended up having emergency surgery.
Before the operation the surgeon talked to me about what would happen. He explained that if the part of my bowel that was stuck had been damaged they may need to re-section the bowel. I had heard about people having issues with mesh, so I asked about the risks involved. His response put things into perspective for me: there is an inherent risk involved with putting anything “foreign” into the body – but “not to be over dramatic here, but if we don’t do this operation there is a chance you could die.”
Umbilical hernia repair with mesh
I was going to share a YouTube video that shows what’s done during the surgery, but it’s a bit squeamy – and something I made sure not to watch until after mine had been done! Feel free to search YouTube though; there are lots of videos detailing exactly what is done during surgery of this kind. My surgery was done “open” rather than laporoscopically, and under general anaesthetic.
When I woke up from the operation I was fairly groggy, but also surprised by my pain levels which were not too bad. I was also dosed up on morphine though! In order to move me back to the ward, they asked me to shift myself over to a different bed, which I managed – I found that my fear of searing pain inhibited my movement more than the actual pain did. Again – morphine played a part here!
A little later on the ward someone came and walked with me to the toilet, which was about ten feet from my bed. Again, I was more worried about hurting myself or pulling my stitches – there wasn’t a huge amount of pain and I managed to get myself in and out of bed ok. Overnight and the next morning I had morphine a few times but wasn’t in agony; more just uncomfortable, and nervous of moving or using my stomach muscles.
I stayed in hospital overnight and went home the following afternoon with some codeine for pain management. At this point I was terrified of ripping out a stitch or something. I’d been told that there were internal stitches and that I should avoid lifting anything because if the stitches broke, I would need to have the entire operation done again.
The operation was on a Thursday afternoon; the surgeon told me I should keep the dressing on until Friday afternoon, and not have shower until Saturday – other than that, just give it a good few weeks before having a bath or going swimming, avoid standing with the wound directly under the shower, and allow the stitches to dry out properly any time they got wet.
By the following Tuesday, I was at a school sports day, standing in a damp field for two hours. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience of my life, but it was manageable. The main thing I was affected by was the anaesthetic – I didn’t feel myself for a good few weeks afterwards and it took me several months to get my head “back in the game.”
Immediately after I’d had the operation, people commented that I looked skinny; I felt like I’d had weight loss surgery and was so pleased. Having an umbilical hernia means that rather than just being “fat” you have a lump sticking out above your navel, which can often be mistaken for pregnancy. My hernia had got so bad that even my most baggy clothes couldn’t hide it; I felt self conscious all the time. Now that it was gone, I was so pleased.
Within a week or so, I was able to walk into town and lift small items. I walked S to school in the mornings, and for a couple of weeks a friend brought her home for me so that I didn’t overdo it. I felt good though and the wound healed fairly quickly. The scar itself is around 5cm long and runs horizontally across my belly button. This means that most of it is actually inside my belly button and barely noticeable – that might change if I lose some weight though!
For a long while there was a knot of what I imagine was internal stitches beneath the external wound. These remained for months after the visible stitches had dissolved and the wound was closed – but they weren’t uncomfortable.
When I originally went to my GP to ask for help with my hernia, I requested a referral for physio. I’m not sure if the different departments spoke to each other or anything, but around a month after my operation, my first physio appointment came through. After five years of having a diastasis I had kind of resigned myself to it always being there so I was surprised when I saw the physio, who is an expert in diastasis, and she told me it wasn’t that bad and it was possible to close the gap.
I was given some physio exercises and advice about how to stand, to make sure I wasn’t arching my back, where my hips should be and so on.
To be honest, I was shocked when I went back to see the physio a month or so later, and was discharged! I thought she must be wrong and that the gap couldn’t possibly have closed – but it had.
At the time of writing, it is eight months since I had my operation. The wound is completely healed, and the lump I could feel internally has gone. My diastasis has closed – though I am always mindful of ensuring I don’t do things that could stress the area.
I’ll be honest; until a couple of weeks ago I was getting the occasional twinge which I think must have been from the mesh which is obviously not as flexible as the flesh around it. I am still wary of doing things that involve a weight that cannot be carried close to my body, or anything that doesn’t feel “stable.”
It’s also interesting to note that this past week or so is the first time since having my operation that I’ve actually been able to tense my deep internal abdominal muscles. The best way I can think of to explain this is that when you’ve just had a baby and they tell you to exercise your pelvic floor – to start with, your brain simply cannot find the muscles; it’s like they’re not there. I wasn’t even really aware that my brain was not in touch with all of the muscles of my belly, but just lately I’ve found that I’m able to suck my muscles in and together much more than I could before. And I think perhaps my being able to do this has strengthened my core and might be the reason I don’t feel twinges from the mesh any longer.
Incidentally, the image at the top of this post is of a glass sculpture by Geraldine McLoughlin currently (June 2018) on display in Salisbury Library and forming part of Salisbury Art Trail. It has nothing to do with the post really; I just really liked the sculpture!