Category Archives: Scar shame

Three responses to infant surgery

Infant surgery does different things to different people.

This post introduces readers to three men whose infant surgery recently prompted them to go public, each in his own way.

yay1Dave Outred went online to express his joy and gratitude for his full and satisfying life, apparently unaffected by the rather messy start to life he had.  After developing pyloric stenosis (“PS”), he was operated on twice in a London hospital in 1955 to remedy this rather common condition when he was about 6 weeks old: when it became clear that the first “procedure” had not dealt with his stomach blockage, it was repeated a day or two later, leaving him with two rather large and untidy scars.

But, he wrote on Facebook (to a “closed” Group) –

I say, be proud of your scars because you are a survivor!  I have had a great life: played sports for my town as a school boy, enjoyed camping and an outdoor life with the scouts, been married twice [currently 31 years], followed my football [soccer] team through good years and bad, semi-retired at 48 after many years of working 6 and 7 day weeks.  Lots of friends and a full life.  Recovery from P.S. is the start of a life you may never have had.

ButchBee02aJay Jacobs’ infant surgery was to deal with volvulus, a twisting of the bowels that like PS blocks the passage of food but can also quickly cut off the blood supply, causing gangrene and death of the affected intestines.  Perhaps because he was not expected to live, perhaps because cosmetic concerns rated rather lowly in 1957, perhaps because of his earlier weight problem, he has also been left with a very large and sunken scar.

Jay Jacobs found it harder than Dave Outred to feel accepting and confident about his disfiguring scar and count his blessings… until he found his niche.  Jay Jacobs always had a weight problem but in his later adult years he succeeded in beating this: he found diets and fitness programs that worked for him, participated in the Biggest Loser program on TV, and developed and promoted his discoveries, weight-loss and new-found wellness to become a successful entrepreneur!

Quite likely because of his accomplishments, he was also persuaded to rise above his negativity about his abdominal scar.  He appeared “topless” on TV and online, and wrote about his former “shame” and new-found confidence about his torso and story.

Henry Fox like Dave Outred also had PS and early surgery to remedy it.

Genes baby1It left him with a lifelong passion for the importance of medical research.  Many PSers realise that up to about a century ago, the diagnosis of infant PS was almost always a death sentence: the surgical remedies then on offer were so crude and horrific and so rarely successful that most parents preferred to see their little one simply expire.

Henry Fox knew this and also that there are still many conditions of infancy that although less common than PS need research funds and workers.  He wrote –

Owing to the type of research now carried out by Action Medical Research, I was able to undergo a small operation to rectify this and am now able to make the most of my ability to digest properly…!
Since then, Action Medical Research together with its most famous sponsor, Paddington Bear, have stayed very close to my heart.  I spent several days as a young child attending Action Medical Research’s Paddington Bear tea parties, over-indulging in a fair few marmalade sandwiches to help raise funds for their life-saving research!!  This association has stayed with me and it is rumoured that (aged 27) I may still possess a Paddington Bear duvet cover.

 Henry is seeking sponsorship for his running in the 2016 London Marathon (24 miles or 40 km on 24 April) to raise funds for medical research.

Nerdy MD2For many years now I have been reading and writing about the many issues around infant PS, and seeking greater recognition of the turbulence that affects a fair number of those affected by this rather common ailment.

I have been intrigued by the unity among parents affected by PS: those who write report as one that it was their most traumatic experience ever – and that all too often it left them feeling cheated in one way or another.

On the other hand, those who themselves have had PS respond and reflect on it in many different ways, and the reports above are typical but only samples of many very different responses.

Who do you think you are?

Recently I watched the 100th program of the popular TV series, Who do you think you are?

ponderAppropriately, it was a review of some of the most notable of the 100 stories to date.  Two utterly poignant segments joined “survivors” ardent about unearthing the fate of their ancestors and family members.  An Anglo-African woman hoped to find some mention of her ancestors who had laboured as African slaves in Antigua.  Another woman’s relatives were among the Jews trapped in Belorussia during the Holocaust: it was known that 2 girls in her family had been killed horrifically, literally by the hands of German soldiers.

I recalled the absolute apprehension and determination of the children of adoptive parents wanting to find their birth parents.

Some of the Who do you think you are? programs I have found to be rather “ho-hum” – interesting but somewhat lacking in power and passion.  But not so the heart-rending search for what exactly had happened in utter blackness long ago and faraway in Antigua and Belorussia.  Sometimes despite deep sadness or horror we just need to discover what we can find out.  We feel a deeply personal and profound bond with imprecise stories about our kith and kin, with the general facts about certain people in other times and places.

My own search has certainly been nothing as emotional as that of the two women with links to Antigua and Belorussia, but it’s been passionate just the same.

People02But it has also reminded me that my early PS, surgery, hospitalization and parenting have affected me more than many other infant PS survivors.  Most seem never to even think about their PS episode, some can’t identify or even care or want to know about “that scar”.  And others recoil at the mention of what their first weeks were like for them and their parents – like the Facebooker who asked me to delete a photo depicting the starvation that some babies suffer before they are properly diagnosed and treated.  We each manage our life stories in our own way.

My parents were people of bygone times who kept from me the details of the infant surgery I had when just 10 days old.  Before I was 6 years old, I became desperate to know what had created what I later learnt was a surgical scar, running down the middle of my young body, and how I should answer the inevitable questions of the curious.

During my growing years I picked up enough from conversations and books to understand the essence and effects of surgical work, and what pyloric stenosis was.  It didn’t take that long to learn how to avoid the inquisitive queries: I avoided most by covering up and lied away the rest.  Meanwhile I learnt what I could do to remove what I believed was a length of white string caught under my skin… the answer was of course: nothing.  Sure signs of inadequate parenting, an insecure child, an introspective nature, and (I discovered later) signs of PTSD and OCD.

A busy working and family life, plus the now understandable reticence of the then available information sources meant that between the ages of 20 and 60 I learnt little more.  But “the need to know” was kept alive by my continuing episodes of feeling embarrassed, obsessed, and self-harming because of my scar and story.

Q mark2The advent of the internet with its free, rich and growing flow of information and its potential for community-building was a major breakthrough and gift for me.  It gave me many details which I had never heard or fully understood, and which I quickly recognized as some of the missing pieces of my puzzle.

Amongst much else I learnt –

  • most of what I now know about infant PS – and that there is an adult form of this condition;
  • how infant surgery was usually done before 1987 (and still is in the case of many circumcisions);
  • that the danger of infection before the 1960s had a major impact on hospital protocols and procedures – with great effects on all concerned;
  • that trauma (another “hush-hush” subject at the time) affected many of the babies and adults of those times;
  • that PS and its surgical repair leave many with life-long problems, for some minor but for others very disruptive;
  • that many medical workers were and remain ill-equipped to understand and fully help those who seek their assistance;
  • that healing occurs in many ways and that we each seek or find our individual path; and
  • that many of my approximate contemporaries who have had early surgery and are willing to network report psychological and related difficulties very similar to mine.
  • that although my parents both died in the early 1990s without ever engaging with me about what were some obvious “issues”, I have discovered that the very little they did tell me and the main import of what I have learnt since are a perfect match!
  • that I am part of a large number of infant surgery survivors who share my passion to connect our past and present: I receive a steady stream or comments from readers who value my sharing, explaining and honesty about what I have learnt.

woman at PCI have enjoyed years of interaction with countless others who had older-times infant surgery and were able and willing to share their stories.  This blog has triggered many of these passing contacts – and a few deep and revealing friendships.  Forum and social networking sites such as Facebook, Experience Project, MedHelp, Patient, and Topix have been valuable also.  Facebook alone has more than a dozen PS Support Groups (although only a few see significant traffic) with over 700 members!

Something deeply personal which I still don’t quite understand but sense I should is a powerful motivator.  Whilst appreciating and respecting those whose problems are much larger than mine, I too remain both passionate and thankful about what I have learnt about “my story” which my parents kept from me.

I am now much better to join the dots between my past and present!

Why are there so many kinds of scars from PS surgery?

As a boy growing up with a scar cluster front and centre on my belly, I found I had several fixations which have never really left me.

  1. I was desperate to know what caused this scar, left by pyloric stenosis (“PS”) surgery I had when just 10 days old.  Apart from my mother telling me several times that I had been “a little bit sick as a baby and a doctor had made me better” it wasn’t until much later in life that I pieced that puzzle together.
  2. I was also desperate to hide my belly from public view.  I shrank from people’s inquisitive stares and inevitable questions and felt deeply embarrassed because I couldn’t handle, let alone answer them.
  3. Whenever I saw people in beach or gym attire (and with a bare midriff) I was ravenous in my search for anyone with a scar similar to mine – but never found anybody like me in that way until in my adult life.

People02Only in recent years have I learnt that this somewhat bizarre cluster of phobias and fixations is by no means unusual for survivors of infant surgery.  As mentioned in a recent post, there are also many extroverts who totally escaped my problems – and often find them rather silly.

Obsession #3 has continued with me (and it seems with others in their more mature years).  In recent years I have seen quite a number of people with what look like being scars from PS operations, and this is largely because I have learnt that this “procedure” is done using a number of surgical techniques.  So my mind is now programmed to search for and recognize half a dozen scars!  Yes, weird and whacky!

The development of the internet has birthed several forum sites where people like me can network and break out of their feelings of isolation and self-flaggelation.  The web even allows us now to compare scars and to have many of our questions answered much more fully than my 1940s parents would ever have been able!

Recently Facebookers with an interest in their own or their child’s PS mentioned the sheer variety of scars from repairing PS, a fairly common condition remedied with a relatively simple technique.  My own research of this whole subject area enabled me to attempt an answer –

The pyloric ring muscle usually sits under and behind the right (and exit) end of the stomach, so below the right ribcage.  It can be fairly easily accessed from anywhere below the ribs and above the navel.

The navel (or umbilicus) itself is (or was once) often avoided as a point of access, especially if it hasn’t fully healed after the baby’s birth and as its folds are a haunt for germs.  The umbilical incision (“Tan Bianchi” after the surgeons who promoted it) is a semi-circle incision usually over the top of the navel, sometimes extended by one or both horizontals (making it an omega sign): through this the pylorus is worked on. The Tan Bianchi incision is now often used as it allows open access but (if done well) leaves a minimal scar.

The keyhole op (“minimal access surgery” or MAS) was introduced in the 1990s: a 5mm probe (tube or “port”) through or near the navel inflates the belly and adds light, and then two other probes (3mm) higher up allow instruments to enter and do the work on the pylorus. In recent years “single port MAS” has been introduced by which everything is done through the one port at the navel.  Special care with infection control is very important, and this technique comes with a higher number of infections, but it also leaves minimal scars and is therefore preferred by parents.  MAS requires a higher level of training and skill than open surgery, but experienced surgeons can use it with similar results and complication profiles.

The open incision was and is still the easy one for surgeons, but growing numbers of younger pediatric surgeons have now learnt the umbilical and/or MAS techniques.

Abdomen incisions1Open surgery involves cutting through layers of skin, fat, muscle, and the fine material that holds our abdominal bits and pieces in place, plus of course nerves and blood vessels.  There are several layers of muscle forming the wall of the abdomen, each running in different directions to enable them to do a variety of tasks and to add toughness.  Down the front and middle of the abdomen, running from the breastbone to the pubic region, is a strip of tough connective tissue called the “linea alba” or “white line”: it has less blood vessels and nerves and anchors the various muscle sheaths.

Conrad Ramstedt, who in 1912 pioneered and promoted the technique that is used to treat infant PS, used the median (or middle) incision down the linea alba that was and is still used for much (and especially major) abdominal surgery.  It gives good access, can be easily extended, and avoids the complex muscle layers on either side.

Other surgeons preferred to avoid this area for relatively short incisions, as the linea alba’s poor blood supply slowed healing and therefore increased the risk of wound rupture.  These doctors moved their vertical incision to the right, the “para-median” incision.

In the 1930s, two other incisions became popular for PS surgery.  Both avoided the vertical openings which it was claimed came with increased exposure of internal organs, and more wound complications.  By cutting through the several layers of muscle and repairing each separately, it was claimed that the wound was easier to control.  One of these incisions was angled just under the right ribcage, the Kocher or “gridiron” incision.  The other was transverse (“across”) and became the most popular one used for PS surgery to date.  Transverse incisions are placed wherever the surgeon likes or locates the pylorus: some are almost at navel level, other horizontal just under the ribcage, and most in between.

Reading the journal articles that advocate the writers’ incision preference has led me to conclude that a surgeon’s choice seems to depend more on their classroom or craft training than on truly decisive benefits or hazards.

The development of the umbilical and MAS techniques has occurred only since 1990, urged on by the cosmetic benefits which are usually and typically urged on conservative and technique-oriented doctors by the concerned parents of unknowing babies.

Postscript

Since writing this post I came across a website under the title of Common Abdominal Incisions.  It sets out in (what I find) fascinating detail and in generally understandable English the various considerations, benefits and hazards regarding the incisions used for many of the commonly used abdominal surgeries, and what each incision involves.  In the past I have sometimes found it necessary to “translate” the information given on a medical website, but in this case that seemed quite unnecessary.

Coming out – about our scars after infant surgery

Many of us feel most comfortable conforming, not drawing attention to ourselves.  Many others pride themselves in being different, “standing out from the pack”.  I envy them!

I very much belong to the first lot: I totally hated my 9 cm (3½”) scar from a pyloric stenosis operation back in 1945 when I was just 10 days old.  My scar shame was quite apart from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress which (as far as I can discover) resulted from the story of my first illness.

This deeply felt sensitivity about my scar was probably not unconnected with the psychological effects on me of the surgery, but it mushroomed when I became conscious of wearing a scar that is “front and centre” and very obvious in the bath and at the beach.  Asking my parents about it clearly unsettled them, further intensifying my own discomfort.

The internet has shown me that my obsessive sense of shame is far from universal among those who have needed infant surgery, and that many flaunt their scar with pride and think up fantastic stories about having been stabbed, or attacked by a shark.

But I have also been greatly comforted to learn that many have felt as I did:  my emotions and inner pain are hardly freakish or unique.

yay1One of the things that has helped me to find peace with myself is the number of people who have used the web to share their own struggle towards the self-acceptance of their disability or disfigurement.  Often their life was much more difficult and their blemish more severe than mine

I have also joined the many who have also gone online to “objectify” their scar: to post a photo of it or of them wearing it in public, empowering us to break through what is very much a self-imposed complex and to see ourselves as others do.

Again and again the posts and comments on social networking sites like Facebook express gratitude at the opportunity to network and share something that in the past was all too often a lonely and endless ache.

For those interested, here are some links to blogs that others and I have found liberating –

Angella Dykstra – Scarred for life

David Fetterman’s story about Father and son

Maggie Van Buskirk’s story

Nathan Long – Forced to fast for peace

Enjoy!  Grow!  Share!

Aware parenting after infant surgery

At the age of just 3 years, children learn to use the word “Why?”

We humans are incurably curious, we want to understand what we see and hear.

Read this recent social media post by the mother of a pyloric stenosis child –

mum-dtr talk1My son was almost 9 weeks when he had his surgery.  It took them a long time to diagnose him; he will be 6 years old in a few weeks and his scar is about 3″ long.  He’s grown over the summer and has complained a lot about his tummy hurting.  That was part of the reason I joined the group so I could find out if other PS children experienced the same thing.  He also had a hernia repaired when he was 14 months old.  The scar bothers him when he gets asked what happened, but I tell him you were really sick and needed an operation to make you better.  Mommy loves your scar.  Then he smiles and laughs and forgets about the questions.

I wonder, what is your response to this post?  “What a lovely Mommy”?  “How nice”?

This was my response to this mother –

That interaction between you and your son reminds me so much of when I was his age!

My mother and I would have times like that, and my mum would use those exact same words.  But I never could never smile and forget to ask any more questions.  And when I asked more questions, the response was always, “We’ll talk about that sometime later” – but we never did.

150414-085And so from age 5 I increasingly felt embarrassed about the scar running down the middle of my belly, and whenever I asked the questions I had I felt fobbed off by pleasantries.  This deepened a then already real phobia that would trouble me for many years.

Today we know so much more and so I’m sure you’ll be sensitive to your son’s deeper personal feelings and be able to help him.  I still wish now that my mum (long passed on) had taken the initiative several times over my growing years –
1) showing she recognised my struggle instead of telling me off for showing any sign of it,
2) telling me about her part in and feelings about my first op in detail,
3) answering any questions I still had, and
4) discussing with me how I could work on my phobia.

Your son may grow up being very different from me, of course, but believe me, I’m far from alone in what I’ve just posted here!

Dealing with scar shame

One of the common results of infant surgery is scar shame.

Self-Confidence2 smlIt doesn’t affect everybody, of course.  Some of us are extroverted, self-confident, ready to take on the world.  I well remember my youngest granddaughter showed these wonderful traits from the day she was born!  And 3½ amazing years later she still does… much to her parents’ delight (and occasional frustration)!

But we’re not all like that: two of her siblings are introverted and hyper-sensitive like I tend to be.  Their struggles and hurts are painful reminders of how hard I have often found it to think of myself and my issues in more realistic and objective terms than I tend to.

Recently one of my correspondents in the UK went online with a holiday photo of herself in a bikini and the caption, “this is the first photo I’ve ever posted of my scar.”  Her photo showed a deeply indented scar across her middle; her life had been saved at a very early age by surgery to remedy pyloric stenosis (“PS”).  Now, many years later, she went on to write how glad she was she had taken this step of “going public”: “I’ve no idea how many photos I have with my arm placed strategically across my scar.”  Others have written lines like, “Have been embarrassed by my scar all my life and never wore a bikini.”

Many others have gone online to say that their scar has never been an issue, never give it any thought, or that they’re proud of it.

My UK correspondent went on to publish images of a recent Cosmopolitan UK article (April 2015) by Natasha Devon.  Ms Devon is also an infant PS survivor and two years ago she suffered a ruptured spleen which resulted in her having a large laparotomy (the opening of the abdomen from top to bottom).  I had read one of Ms Devon’s blogs some years ago and want to recommend her work and writing to my readers who might be helped by them.

Art Body trolls-2 150517 FbMs Devon does excellent education and advocacy work in the UK via the spoken word, print and electronic media.  Her gifts and life Art Body trolls-1 150517 Fbexperiences have equipped her well for this work: her struggle with her PS scar resulted in a childhood obsession which seems to have been very like what I went through in my younger years.  In her teenage years this obsession became fixated on her scar becoming deeply indented giving her what look like two spare tyres around her waist.  Her concern over her body image then developed into anorexia nervosa.

Now well and truly recovered and adult, Natasha Devon has devoted herself to helping particularly girls and young women who battle with their own body image, with society’s worship of the “body beautiful”, or the predatory behaviour of insensitive and repulsive people in our various home and societal circles and via the media.

Here are some links to read more if you are at all interested –

Loving your Tum (2012, The Real Beauty Debate) – Why do many women struggle so hard to have or get a flat tummy?  Accept and love your body!

My Body is Freaking Awesome. Fact. (2013, The Real Beauty Debate) – Natasha launched a series of 4 tee-shirts with this message or alternatively: BeYou-tiful!  She also tells the story of how she recently survived the belated diagnosis of a ruptured spleen: My body is strong, resilient, clever for healing itself.

Why we should all feel sexy (2013, Cosmopolitan UK) – this article responds to a UK survey that found that many women lack self-confidence, and addresses the causes.

Cellulite, scars, tattoos, hair, bingo wings and bellies: It’s summer – so feel free to get it all out (2013, The Independent) – Natasha celebrates the start of another chancey UK summer with a call to get out into the sun, shed some of that British reserve and enjoy the freedom to dress down a little.

I beat sick internet trolls who said my body was disgusting… and now YOU can too (2014, The Sun – UK ) in addition to ‘They said my body made them puke’ Baring scar in bra left woman troll target (2014, Daily Star) and also Body Image Campaigner Shuts Down Bullies With Bravery (2014, Girl Talk HQ) – After being abused on the internet for showing and telling about her scarred body, Ms Devon takes on the trolls, defending her advocacy and giving some tips on dealing with internet bullying.

Dear Jamelia & Protein World….. (2015, The Real Beauty Debate) – Natasha takes on the fashions and food industries and how they play on the insecurities of many women to market their products, referring to her own struggle with her body image.

I found it interesting and refreshing to read some of the story and writing of someone who has worked through some of the most difficult issues I have had to deal with myself, but from a woman’s viewpoint.  Some of women’s struggles are of course not mine, although I am sensitive to them.  But in other ways men have their own distinctive struggles.

Most of us, whether female or male, feel vulnerable and insecure in certain situations.  Some of us have few of these challenges, others have them as part of their daily life, perhaps even habitually.  If you can identify with this, Natasha Devon is well worth a visit!

Understanding ourselves after infant surgery trauma

Some personal experiences are hard to share.

We can relate to many of the personal experiences we hear about: by the time we reach middle age many of us have been through an illness or an accident; we have probably experienced childbirth (if not personally then as a very close and trusted family member or friend); the death of a close relative or friend also happens to everyone sooner or later.  We can identify fairly well with many such life events.

But deep trauma can be more difficult to understand.  If we have never experienced near death or serious abuse in one form or other, we can say, “Yes, I understand…”, but we don’t really to a great extent.  Those of us who have suffered deep trauma usually feel the need to find somebody else who has experienced something similar, or a counsellor who is trained to listen and help us.

In November 2014 I wrote a series of posts on professional doctors, psychiatrists and counsellors who have done ground-breaking work in helping patients and professional helpers to understand infant trauma.  Reading some of the key work of people like Drs K J S Anand and P R Hickey, the late Dr David Chamberlain, the late Dr Louis Tinnin, and others has been an “Ah!” moment of discovery and gratitude to people like me who have been affected by infant surgery (including circumcision) as that was so often practised before the 1990s, without general or even local anesthesia, using other crude, painful and invasive procedures, and with long periods of maternal deprivation.

ponderFor much of my childhood I was obsessed with a very obvious surgical scar in the middle of my belly, the result of 1945 surgery to remedy pyloric stenosis when I was just 10 days old.  From my parents’ ultra-scant comments, I soon came to understand this early episode in my life story was one they’d rather forget.  From the medical reports of the time which I’ve been able to read in recent years, I have learnt that infant surgical technique in 1945would have been basic, and it was followed by at least 2 weeks of isolation in hospital to guard against infection.

When my self-awareness awoke between the age of 5 and 6, I soon became obsessed with my scar, addicted to re-enacting what little I knew about my surgery in childish ways, and then to increasing self-harm.  It is not helpful or necessary to go into details here, but readers who have had similar problems and feel a need to find greater clarity, healing and reassurance should feel free to email me via the links at the end of other “pages” on this blog’s header.

Why I felt these deep and irresistible urges I did not understand for most of my life, but they troubled me.  I believe my parents could have helped me by (1) explaining my surgery and scar, and (2) helping, persuading, tempting and rewarding me to accept and feel proud of my story and scarred body rather than fearfully hiding it from public view.  But I also wonder whether the power of the trauma of my early surgery might have overridden anything anyone tried to do later!

VdKolkBessel 2015Last week our Australian national radio aired an interview with the US Prof. Bessel van der Kolk whose writings have recently been overviewed and quoted by my blogging colleague Wendy P Williams.  A New York Times article about Dr van der Kolk is also well worth reading.  Yet another article about van der Kolk’s work on infant trauma has been made available by those advocating an end to routine circumcision in the USA.

Dr van der Kolk’s website has links to his work, programs and publications, one of which at least is also freely available online and well worth reading.

Prof. Van der Kolk is undoubtedly correct in saying that trauma caused by events in childhood and in later life is causing a hidden epidemic of personal, family and social problems.  Only in recent years have childhood abuse and military service begun to be more widely recognised as often causing deep-seated and lasting damage.  Even now the military establishment often tries to deny or ignore the obvious damage done by PTSD.

Van der Kolk is also correct in his observation that the numbers afflicted by the trauma of childhood and later vastly outnumber those affected by the infant surgery and mass circumcisions of past years.

However, I have never yet heard of a study of the possible long-term effects of circumcision in the light of what van der Kolk and so many others (including the above trailblazers) have documented as the life-long effects of infant trauma.  Such a study may not make pleasant reading but would very quickly and certainly become “a barbeque stopper” and might even be a “game changer”.

Although Dr van der Kolk does not seem to have encompassed old-time early surgery in his work on childhood trauma, I can shout in my loudest voice that from what I have read, what he has written about the effects of childhood hurt is totally true of my journey after infant pyloric stenosis.  Thank you, Dr Bessel van der Kolk and others, for helping me to understand myself and find healing!