Surfing, Jet-Skiing, hill-walking… I’ve always kept myself busy. Before I retired I even had two jobs. I was a painter and decorator and, at weekends, I was a children’s entertainer.
Ironically, it was the latter that started my problems. I was at a kids’ party, making a balloon sculpture, about 15 years ago. I tried to blow up a balloon that hadn’t been stretched first and ‘bang!’ I felt something go.
It was low down, just above the groin on the right-hand side. A quick burst of agony that subsided into a dull ache. I suspected it was a hernia – though, to be honest, I didn’t really know what one was. It was something people used to laugh about… maybe a gag in a Carry On film. The doctor confirmed that it was an inguinal hernia [where fatty tissue or part of the bowel breaks through the muscle wall near the groin]. A small lump had appeared and though it was quite easy to push back in, it would come back out, so I needed an operation.
Hernia diagnosis and treatment
I was referred to my local hospital in Stockport as a day patient, and was offered keyhole or open surgery. I opted for open because I was told – remember this was 15 years ago – that it would be a more ‘permanent’ repair. They slice you open, push the hernia back in and fasten a piece of mesh over the tear in the muscle wall. In time, your tissue grows over the mesh and the job’s a good ’un. Sort of. What the doctors didn’t tell me is that hernias can take a hell of a long time to repair themselves. The abdominal wall has lots of layers and nerves, so it doesn’t take kindly to being cut open.
My recovery started with gentle walking, then a bit of hydrotherapy. No weightlifting! I was back at work after a couple of months, but the pain lasted a lot longer.
Life did more or less go back to normal – until about five years later. I was lifting a bit of heavy furniture and… this time I had a hernia on my left side. I suppose the second one was easier to handle because I knew what to expect. I was ready for the pain.
When you’ve had a couple of hernias, you become a bit more cautious. I was still into my walking and surfing, but I was always very careful about lifting. Bend the knees, back straight.
Hernia number three happened when I was lifting, but it had nothing to do with my technique. It was just sod’s law; the first hernia repair had failed, which apparently rarely happens. This one was quite serious. Thirteen years of tissue had grown into that mesh and all that would have to be cut out. The treatment of hernias had changed, too. Instead of getting me straight to hospital, I was advised to live with it – as long as it wasn’t causing too much discomfort.
Ask Dr Mark Porter: can I leave my hernia?
After a couple of years, I had almost got used to the hernia. It didn’t stop me from surfing or walking, or doing a bit of knife-throwing, but I was aware that it was getting slightly bigger. It could become a strangulated hernia – a medical emergency (see Complications, below).
I was getting close to 65 and knew that operations can hit you hard as you get older. On top of that, last September I was diagnosed with prostate cancer and felt that that was enough to deal with. So I decided to get the hernia out of the way.
The operation was done at Stockport again, still as a day patient, although it was a much bigger incision. My five-inch gash is longer than my friend’s hip replacement scar! And the pain has been off the scale. But I was able to get to the gym recently, do a bit of jogging, some hydrotherapy. And I’m feeling very positive. My family keep me upbeat and looking after my grandchild is always a tonic.
If I’m on my own, I can start getting maudlin, worrying about it happening again. But that won’t make things any better. I’d much rather think about what I’ll be getting up to this summer. I’ve just bought a new exhaust for the Jet Ski and I can’t wait to try it out!
Inguinal hernias - The lowdown
What is a hernia?
The abdominal wall is made up of sheets of muscle that go from below the ribs to the top of the legs, holding all the organs together inside. Unfortunately, that wall has many weak points. If one splits – due to gardening, a violent cough or similar – an internal organ can force its way through.
Around one in ten of us will get a hernia of some description, and an inguinal hernia is by far the most common. Other types include an umbilical hernia, where fatty tissue or intestine pushes through the abdominal wall near the navel, or a hiatus hernia, where part of the stomach pushes up into the chest. Femoral hernias also occur in the groin but are less common, affecting more women than men.
Complications of a hernia
An inguinal hernia can become obstructed when a section of bowel gets stuck in the inguinal canal. It becomes strangulated when the blood supply to the trapped section is cut off.
Treatment for hernia
‘When I started operating, 30 years ago,’ says Dudley Rogg, director of the British Hernia Centre, London, ‘hernias were still being repaired with a technique that hadn’t changed since the 1800s. Both sides of the defect were stitched together; they were under tension and would often require the wearing of a truss.
‘Now we reinforce the weakened area with a very fine mesh, usually made of polypropylene. With keyhole surgery, the mesh is stapled on top of the defect, but we prefer to use open surgery, so we can tuck the mesh inside the layers of muscle that have herniated. Four small stitches hold it in place and the muscle will almost immediately start to weave small fibrous growths in and out of the mesh. So the repaired area ends up stronger than it was before the operation.
‘The problem is that there are lots of NHS authorities that won’t even treat them – a bit like varicose veins.’
Recovery time from a hernia operation
‘You’re up and out the same day,’ says Rogg. ‘As you get older, it will take longer to recover from any period of inactivity, so it’s important to try to get back to the fitness level you were before the injury, as soon as you feel ready.’