Today, like every day, I noticed a scar on my chest as I was getting out of the shower, and was grateful, as I am every day, that nobody can see the scar once I put on a shirt. I have had the scar for over twenty years because I had pectus repair surgery as a child on June 6. What the heck is pectus repair surgery, you ask? Below is the definition of the chest defect from a medical journal:
The defect known as pectus excavatum, or funnel chest, and pectus carinatum, know as pigeon breast, are congenital anomalies of the anterior chest wall. The excavatum defect is characterized by a deep depression of the sternum, usually involving the lower half or two thirds of the sternum, with the most recessed or deepest area at the junction of the chest and the abdomen. The lower 4-6 costal or rib cartilages, dip backward abnormally to increase the deformity or depression and push the sternum posterior or backward toward the spine. Also, in many of these deformities, the sternum is asymmetric or it courses to the right or left in this depression. In most instances, the depression is on the right side. Also, because of the pressure of the sternum and cartilages, the abdomen looks like a “potbelly”. The entire defect also pushes the midline structures so that the lungs are compressed from side to side and the heart (right ventricle) is compressed and displaced. The pectus excavatum defect is found in somewhere between 1 in every 500-1000 children. It does occur in families and thus, is inherited in many instances. Other problems, especially in the muscle and skeletal system, also may accompany this defect. In approximately 1/5 of the patients, scoliosis is present. The defect is seen shortly after birth and then progresses to its maximum after the growth period in adolescence. The regression or any improvement in this defect rarely occurs because of the fixation of the cartilages and the ligaments. When one takes a deep breath or inspires, the defect is usually accentuated.
In my case, this deformity was hereditary from my father’s side, and mine was more pronounced than my father’s. After much research and discussion with my pediatrician, my parents decided to go ahead and have the surgery done to repair my chest, not only for aesthetic purposes, but to enable me to have more lung capacity, better posture, less pain, and better quality of life. They found a surgeon who was performing the surgery via horizontal scars instead of long vertical scars, and felt that would be the better option aesthetically and for my self-esteem later in life.
The surgery took 8 hours and I was in the hospital for a week after it. I still remember the pain vividly, and could not fully understand why this was necessary as an elementary school aged child. I also remember not being thrilled to be spending that summer recovering instead of playing. I remember how much it hurt to sit up and get out of bed the first few weeks after it, and how much it hurt having the bandages changed.
I also remember a few years later when I joined the swim team. I remember how it hurt to be out of breath after sprints or competing, and began to realize how much worse it would have been without the surgery. I’ve read stories of teenage girls who had the surgery during high school years and they were in constant pain from sports and constantly out of breath. Additionally, their recovery time was much worse due to their surgery being after puberty.
I love swimming, and also found great motivation in the fact that I had been told I likely could not swim butterfly specifically. It hurt like hell sometimes, but was worth every bit of it. I began to push myself more and learned different stretches I could do before and after swimming to help ease the discomfort. I learned to deal with the pain and being out of breath, and was more interested in proving people wrong than I was in quitting due to the pain. I loved it. I was good at it. And any discomfort that my, “The hell I can’t swim butterfly,” attitude couldn’t overcome, three Advil every four hours could. (Clearly, at the time, I was thinking about my chest pain and not the potential effects Advil could have on one’s liver, but whatever.)
So on yet another June 6 anniversary, I am grateful my parents had the surgery done at all, and grateful they had it done while I was a child. I’m grateful for the horizontal scar and grateful for the surgeon, Dr. Morton, for specializing in horizontal incisions. And, each time I feel out of breath or my chest feels tight, I am grateful it’s not worse, and am reminded to breathe deeply and slowly. Instead of being frustrated after I go up a flight of stairs in a hurry and am winded, I try to think of it as a reminder from my Creator to, “Be still and know.”
Since I happen to be in Charlotte, NC this week, I intentionally drove by Presbyterian Hospital where my surgery was done. I sat in the parking lot for a few minutes and gave thanks that I am not having surgery on this June 6 day and said a prayer for those who are.
Happy June 6th to you, and may we all inhale and exhale mindfully and with gratitude this day…because we can.