Sympathy Pains

Sympathy Pains

Over the last couple of days it’s been an awesome privilege to spend an extra amount of time praying for the son of a friend as he had surgery to repair some intestinal issues.

The fact that someone I know was going through this was enough to drive me to my knees, but the fact that a one year old child was going through this hit really close to home.  My own medical journey has, to say the least, heightened my sensitivity to the situation. Please bear with me while I elaborate…

When I was eight months old doctors discovered an inguinal hernia that had been present since birth. My mother was with my sister and I at my grandmothers at the time and dad was finishing a tour off the the coast of Vietnam.  He was home within a few weeks and transferred to a new duty station at White Sands, New Mexico. The Navy doctors there performed the surgery to correct the issue.

I have very early memories of the scar on my stomach, although it’s not really visible now. I also remember asking mom about it.

“You had a hole in your tummy when you were a baby,” is all I was ever told.

I’m not sure if that was just an “age appropriate” response or what she chose to remember from the surgery – it had been a rough few years with a new family and dad’s deployments.  I doubt that I would have understood the technical explanation anyway – “your inguinal canal failed to close and as a result a testicle improperly descended along with fat tissue and nerve endings creating a painful hernia.”  A “hole in your tummy” seems apropos under the circumstances.

Flash-forward seventeen years. I came home from a very rare date my Senior year of high school. I had subtly cut the evening short because I wasn’t feeling well.  My parents were awake when I got home, but fell asleep shortly after. Within moments of laying down for the night, I knew something was wrong. I made it up the stairs to their room and dropped to the floor in pain. A trip to the ER and three days in the hospital produced no conclusive diagnosis.

For the next 25 years, I would have repeats of that night. Moments of intense acute pain along with persistent chronic pain. There were many scans – x-Ray, MRI, and CAT.  Lots of bloodwork, endoscopies, colonoscopies, etc.  I even had my appendix and gall bladder taken out, “just in case.” There were lots of theories – the most prevalent being that the symptoms were psychosomatic and related to PTSD; the most absurd being that I ate too many strawberries and had seeds lodged in my colon.

Symptoms were confusing. They ranged from a loss of appetite (in hindsight I was likely hungry, I just never learned to distinguish hunger pangs from other pains) to issues with bladder functions to severe pain in sexual activity. I could be exercising or helping a neighbor move at one moment and barely able to move myself the next.

It was to the point that my daily life was getting difficult. I was fighting depression very often triggered by the pain. My already tense marriage was suffering even more.

I was finally referred to a physical therapist that specialized in pelvic health.  We began a treatment process where I learned to isolate muscles. This not only allowed better control on my part, but also helped me and the doctors to isolate the pain. They were convinced something was wrong and referred me to a general surgeon for more scans – which, as before, turned up nothing.

As I was able to isolate the pain however, I noticed a distinction between some abdominal and testicular pain.  About a year earlier, the urologist had noticed a testicular cyst developing. A new scan showed that it had nearly doubled in size and a decision was made to remove it, which meant loosing the testicle. During that proceedure, the remaining testicle showed signs of extreme atrophy and was a little over half the size it should have been. As it was essentially dead, it was removed as well.

Relieving that pain and removing the cyst was a great step forward, but there was another great benefit that came from that procedure. The doctor took the opportunity to explore as far up into the abdomen as she could. To so do she had to clean up a significant amount of fatty tissue that was out of palce.  She was able to visually observe tissue herniated through the abdominal wall, but was not in a position to repair it.  As soon as I recovered, she sent me for more scans.

This time was different. We knew something was there, we just didn’t know how bad it was. Furthermore, she had been able to clean out enough tissue that the scans could be read more clearly.  Within a few hours of the scan I was given the results: I had bi-lateral inguinal hernias. Essentially the same issues that led to the hernia as an infant had allowed these to develop. The presence of the hernias also led to weaknesses in the abdominal floor.

A surgery was scheduled within the week. While repairing the bilateral hernias, the surgeon also observed a direct hernia about the size of a quarter and 4-5 femoral hernias. All told there were 7-8 hernias repaired with two pieces of mesh, about 5 square inches each, sewn into my abdominal wall. The recovery from the surgery took much longer than I anticipated – it makes sense seeing that repairing the abdominal wall meant returning most of my abdominal organs had to their proper place.

With continued physical therapy, I have fully recovered and have been pain free ever since.  There were many other details that came to light in this process and this was just one layer of my health adventures. It did however, turn out to be at the center of many of the other layers and those issues were soon being resolved. In the last year I have dropped from eight medications to just two and am more active and, most importantly, more optimistic than I ever remember.

In the process of all that this last year, I had many conversations with my mother about that surgery at a remote missile range in the New Mexico desert. I have seen her eyes as she remembered the fear, heard her voice tense up as she relived those moments. We have also talked about some of the guilt she has had watching me deal with this in my adult life and done our best to agree that while it is a very real feeling, it is also misplaced and unnecessary.

I have been able to recognize and release some idle resentment that I was holding against the doctors that performed that first surgery, wondering if they missed something that might have made my life different.  There have been other doctors that I believe could have done more to properly diagnose the issues much sooner. I’ve also held subtle resentment for my parents for not remembering more about the details of that procedure and diagnosis. (The medical records were destroyed when I was about 11, but that’s another story.)

So that brings me back to the last two days – watching from a distance as this young mother and father put their best efforts into caring for their son.  The circumstances are very different. Modern medicine is also very different than it was back then. But the love of a parent is still what it was. The pain of a child is still pain. And the God who holds us, who has held me all these years, is still God.

And as I’ve prayed for them and others, I’ve been humbly reminded that He will be there to hold us all in the great years that lie ahead.

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