Reflecting on my 70th

Birthdays and anniversaries are times for celebration, and reaching “three-score years and ten” years is certainly worth a big three cheers! But they are important for reflection as well.

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Renmark Reunion September 2015

Gratitude to God and to the most important people in my life over these 70 years are features I’d like to be emblematic of me.  I am still surrounded with so many loving and kind people, I have enjoyed wonderful peace and excellent health, and my contribution in several circles is still wanted and apparently appreciated.

Ten days ago Helen and I gathered to celebrate my 70th birthday with our 4 children, their spouses and our 11 beautiful grandchildren.  A wonderful 5 days . . .

October 6th is ten days after my birth-day and  marks the 70th anniversary of the life-saving surgery I had in the Netherlands.  I would not be writing this but for that day in my life!

Together with the country of my birth and background, my weary and expecting parents were struggling to emerge from the ordeal of World War 2.  And then I arrived, their long-awaited first child, but soon clearly defective: scary, uncontrollable and life-endangering vomiting (infant pyloric stenosis – “PS”).  And these were times when medical science was pretty rough and ready by today’s standards and when people didn’t dwell on what they’d rather forget.

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Mother with me – October 1945

So October 6th marks what I now realise was the gift of a new and wonderful second start in life, but also the beginning of a life-shaping journey of exploration and discovery – outside of me and within.

Outside, my parents were unwilling or unable to answer my reasonable questions about the 10 cm scar on my belly, and this drove me to look for information elsewhere.  But until the advent of the web, this search yielded only cold textbook medical data about PS and the then 33 year old surgical fix for the condition.  And explanations of my deeper issues were nowhere to be found: there were no pointers to where these might be unearthed and no ways of identifying people who could help me to realise (as I do now) that my pain was by no means wacky.

Book coverWithin, I was tormented with private pain from the dawn of my self-consciousness until recent years.  Even now I am still working to piece my private pain-puzzle together, although the web has given me access to much information, clarification and to networking with fellow-survivors, all of which has enabled me to receive and share much healing.  Since 2012 I have blogged about my journey, and in 2014 a pediatric surgeon friend and I published a small book, in which he explained what many still regard as the elusive cause of PS and I outlined my personal experience of this condition. It so happens (in Australia at least) that October 6 falls in “Mental Health Week” – and my own story has certainly helped me to feel a sense of identity with people challenged by mental health issues.

Time changes things!  The past 70 years have taught us the value of openness in the home, the importance of both listening and speaking for healing, of collaboration in achieving goals, and (by no means least) we have learnt much about trauma.

70 years have also brought huge changes to surgical technique and to holistic care in the hospital and home.  Time seems to have done less to change the unhelpful attitudes of some in the medical profession – but that’s due to human nature being far from perfect.

What do these changes (and their lack in some respects) mean?

120327-07-WgHcThe kind of trauma symptoms I struggled with is rare among more recent PS survivors.  Their surgical scars are sometimes almost indiscernible, usually tidy and very rarely as gnarly.  Affected children’s and their parents’ questions are typically answered much more fully and sympathetically, and the children are helped to understand, “own” and even feel pride about their story.

As I see it, I have discerned this is the growth in myself.  I am indeed a survivor from a bygone era of medical practice and parenting, and my scar is an exhibit of mid-20th century surgery.  I know it’s not socially correct for a cultured older gentleman like me to proudly show off his scar as an 8 year old lad might… but I’m catching up on lost joys and enjoying it!

Is there a link between infant PS and later abdominal trouble?

Most General Practitioners (GPs) will reject any link out of hand.  Some GPs have even been known to ask their patient (or client) what “PS” (pyloric stenosis) is.

We can be sure that every medical textbook and training includes at least a page or part of a lecture on PS, which is the most common reason for non-elective surgery on infants in their first months and years.  But who can blame a medical student for not remembering everything they are told and read over six or more packed years?

However, the almost universal denial of a link between PS and later abdominal trouble is more than a nuisance.  It may be “textbook” but it misleads and misinforms the parents of a PS baby and most will continue with this false assurance until they discover the truth – usually only after much frustration.  As for PS survivors, they are the immediate and personal subjects of the widespread ignorance and misinformation about the possible long-term gastric and other problems that can come with PS and/or its surgery.

113This kind of trouble does not seem to afflict the majority of PS survivors, and may only affect a small minority.  But considering PS affects between 2 and 5 in every 1,000 babies, that is still a lot of people!  I have on file hundreds of stories just from those who have told something of their story on Facebook’s several PS Group pages – and elsewhere!  There are several other social forum sites carrying the stories of worried or unhappy PSers.

The pattern is typically like this:

  • The “survivors” endure some years of increasingly nagging (though not mortal) discomfort, pain and frustration with real but unidentified gastric and/or other abdominal symptoms (tightness, pain, bloating, irritable bowels, dietary misbehaviour, vomiting, etc.
  • Their doctors seem loathe to acknowledge these symptoms, giving their patients medication or dietary advice.
  • There is outright rejection of PS possibly having long-term consequences – the high acidity of PS, damage to the gastric passage and even the lungs (from ingested vomit), post-surgical adhesions, and trauma after old-style infant surgery and hospitalization are just some of the hazards which should be considered.  All of these possible conditions have been documented and reported in medical literature.
  • It seems that often the “survivor” discovers the link between their malady and their PS past only when they stumble onto an online forum where they find they are not alone.

Sadly, because PS-related problems are low on the medical world’s radar for several reasons, there is virtually no interest in researching them.  Hence the medical juggernaut rolls on in rejection and ignorance.  However, there have been a few small studies and (from what I have found) just one very large study that have confirmed that infant PS is not always free of long-term consequences.

If the reader is interested to trawl through enough pages of stories on this blog and on the screens of the largest three of Facebook’s PS Groups, they will also find reports that several GI specialists have (usually after many, many consultations) admitted to a connection, agreed on tests, and arrived at better advice treatment.

In 2014 a pediatric surgeon friend and I published a small book, in which he explained what many still regard as the elusive cause of PS and I outlined my personal experience of this condition.

Pain01Lay reading of medical journals and even a basic understanding of how our gut and PS work tell us there certainly can be a link.  More specifically, the high acid that causes PS continues with the patient, raising the risk of related issues including reflux, irritable bowels, esophageal damage, and gastric ulcers and cancer.  Reduced gastric emptying could well be caused by damage to the vagus nerve or adhesions from the operation constricting the working of the stomach and gall bladder, whilst the throat / voice problems are likely caused by erosion / scarring of the esophagus caused by reflux, high acid, or lack of care with the breathing tube during surgery.

Of course anyone with any such symptoms would need a proper diagnosis but it’s not hard for even lay people to understand the links.  With countless numbers from my Facebook networks, I plead with the medical profession, parents, patients and the family and friends of PS survivors to recognise and help spread the awareness of this quite common condition and its possible ramifications.

And if what you the reader has learnt here “rings a bell” … I sincerely hope that you have been greatly encouraged to pursue your problem and get it sorted out.

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!

Infant surgery then and now

Infant surgery has seriously affected some of us whose lives were saved by it.

This is especially true of those like me who are now at the older end of life: we have been affected emotionally and psychologically despite having no conscious memories of the surgery we had so early in our lives.  Our bodies record potent trauma even when our mind cannot.  This does not seem to affect everybody but others’ stories and tell-tale signs are too similar to reject as fiction.

Surgery in the past was rather basic, especially when performed on infants and in the light of current practice. Often in the not-too-distant past no safe general anesthetic and trained pediatric (children’s) anesthetist were available: general anesthetic agents were hazardous for infants in their first two years unless a very careful and experienced anesthetist was available.

Local anesthesia affects the tissue at the operative site, making it hard to work on, so many surgeons would also exclude its use.  So the squirming baby was strapped down, and quite often given a shot of whisky or a sugar cube laced with rum to somewhat distract it.  Or a paralysing drug was injected and a breathing tube inserted.  No picnic for the baby, and it must have been tough on the operating room staff.

The hospital regime then was also “different”.  Two weeks or more in hospital was standard after an “uneventful” pyloric stenosis (“PS”) operation, and often the mother was allowed no contact for fear of infection, which still killed about 50% of PS babies post-op in UK public hospitals after WW2.  I understand my mother had to deliver breast milk daily over 15 km to the hospital for 2 weeks but was never allowed near me, let alone nurse me.  (My surgery was at 10 days so what an introduction to nursing her first baby I was for her…)

Starvation pre-op plus surgical shock plus maternal deprivation – none of it remembered of course, but it has really affected me and others of that generation long term.  Add to that: some years later, these baby-boomer and earlier parents were totally unaware and incapable of managing their own and their growing child’s developing ptsd.

Woodstock-1But hey!  Ever since Dr Conrad Ramstedt and others began publicising their newly discovered “pyloromyotomy procedure”, most of us PS babies no longer died of dehydration and starvation.  Even those who had the PS op in its early days have mostly lived to tell their tales and have often lived well.

But I am also very thankful that despite the many post-op issues reported on Facebook and other form sites, some of the old damage is no longer being inflicted today.  Infant surgery today, even in its most severe forms, is now far less traumatic for all concerned, and most hospital regimes are sensitive and aware.

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!