Hours after abdominal reconstructive surgery, all doped up on pain pills, I took a “selfie.”

Battle Scars
by Sarah Shaffer

A few years back I had fairly extensive surgery. Following the birth of our daughter, my body decided it wasn’t up to repairing itself from the pregnancy process. I ended up with a severe form of Diastasis Recti, a splitting of the abdominal muscles. Normally after giving birth if your abdominal muscles have split (somewhat common) your body repairs itself and stitches those muscles back together.

I was part of the unlucky few who didn’t have their abdominal muscles reconnect at all. This was not only unsightly (I looked 7 months pregnant even though I’d already given birth) but it was troublesome. A CT scan showed my intestines were hanging out between my abdominal muscles millimeters below the skin of my stomach — a situation that could be considered a giant hernia.

Not that I knew this at first. I was back mountain biking not long after giving birth, but with no core strength, I took falls on ridiculously easy terrain. After a few rides I knew something was wrong. It didn’t take doctors long to discover the issue.

What took time (nearly a year) was the battle with the insurance company to have the reparation surgery covered. Next, I found two surgeons at the University of Washington who were willing to fix me. This took a general surgeon and a plastic surgeon each with their own teams working together to get the job done. With four different layers of sutures and a long piece of mesh put in place they patched me up so that I could get back to normal life and so that I might be active in the outdoors again.

The surgery was long, as was the convalescence, and the first place I visited upon being discharged from the hospital was REI which was located two blocks from my medical center. My family pushed me around in a wheelchair while I eyeballed jackets, climbing gear, and tents. I actually bought one of my favorite soft shell jackets while in that wheel chair.

Look Ma! No belly button! Three months following surgery this is how the scar looked. The funky swirl lines are stretch marks from being pregnant.

Recovery from the surgery was long and, initially, disappointing. I idealized having a six pack a year later and rock climbing 5.11’s again. I’m nowhere near either of those goals. Over time I’ve realized I should never have assumed I’d be the same or better than before pregnancy.

I’ve worked hard to reclaim my fitness. I may not be as good as new but this body can still power me to amazing places — it just may take me longer or I may need to dial back the difficulty some. That’s a small penalty for still getting out there.

Things I’ve learned:

1. Improvise! I use a full abdominal brace (it looks a lot like a back brace but with the supports in the front). I use this brace for jogging, mountain biking, x-country skiing, rock climbing and hiking with a heavy pack on my back. It gives me the ability to keep doing the things I most enjoy. I may be still be wearing the brace when I am 80, but it keeps me in the game.

After an uphill mountain bike climb at Twin Peaks, following surgery.

2. It was OK to be frustrated and disappointed but I had to move past that and concentrate on what I could do. After my surgery, I had to use a walker to get around and one city block was a long distance for me. It was humbling and slow progress but I can do so much more now and I am grateful for what I can do rather than resentful over what I lost.

3. Michael Hansen (my physical therapist at Biosports) told me….”this is the new you.” I try to remember that on days when I’m frustrated with my body, when I can’t rock climb as hard, when I can’t balance well on the mountain bike. My body isn’t the same but I can keep improving through hard work. Above all I can still get outside to enjoy stunning scenery, breathe fresh air, exercise the body, unwind the mind, enjoy a companion’s company, and/or challenge myself.

4. I’m more realistic about my goals and expectations. There’s a fine line between exacting what’s possible from yourself without setting yourself back, physically or mentally. I’m more willing to be kind to myself now. It’s not like I’m a top athlete who has to reclaim her abilities to reclaim her livelihood. Instead, the outdoors and outdoor activities have been nourishment for my body and soul. They still are, even if I can’t charge as hard.

This post was originally published in 2016. 

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