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02/03/2005

Game boy

Charlie has an umbilical hernia. This isn't an uncommon condition, though it's more common — just like everything — in premature babies. It occurs when the ring of abdominal muscles around the umbilical cord fails to close after the baby is born, and in most cases it resolves without treatment within a couple of years.

It's not serious and it's not harmful. It is also not so pretty.

Instead of a tidy and respectable innie, babies with an umbilical hernia have a protrusion that ranges in size from, I don't know, cat's-eye marble to basketball. What is it that causes this protrusion? What's sticking out through the opening in the abdominal wall? What in the name of all that's holy is that fucking thing?

Glad you asked! It's intestines, of course!

We knew about Charlie's hernia early on because, hey, it's the kind of thing you notice. In those weeks in the NICU we were concentrating on weightier matters than an unsightly navel, and I didn't give it much thought. It wasn't until Charlie's last appointment with the local neonatologist that the subject came up.

"Have you pressed on it?" the doctor asked us.

"Ummmm...no..." Paul and I stammered in unison, spooked by the very thought of poking that roiling little mound.

"Go on, mash it," she instructed gaily. And mash it I did. It sank abruptly into his abdomen with unnerving ease, then sprang immediately back out when I removed my finger. It felt like...like...well, exactly like you'd expect a protruding loop of intestine covered only by a couple of layers of membrane and skin to feel.

PopomaticSince then I have found myself compelled to press on it every time I change his diaper. Though I want to, I don't actually do it. The one time I did, I was rewarded by an ominous rumble from deep within Charlie's belly, followed by a loud release of some of the foulest-smelling gas this side of the river Styx. This thing is like a goddamn Popomatic Bubble.

Oh, yes, we got Trouble. Right here.

Now, in the last several days he's found it difficult to empty his bowels, straining and turning a dark purple-red as he grunts with exertion. There are many things I can try to help him along. But rectal stimulation — thermometer, ointment — doesn't work. And a warm bath with gentle abdominal massage doesn't work. So naturally I keep thinking, What if I just pressed his navel...right...there?

In the hospital while Paul was changing a diaper, peering closely to make sure Charlie's tiny anus was left fresh as a daisy, Charlie let loose a gout of liquid excrement that shot out in a malodorous stream, making an arc no less impressive than the Gateway Arch. Paul responded with a loud announcement that made the nurses whoop with laughter: "Shit." I'm still not sure whether he was exclaiming or describing.

We know, therefore, that Charlie is capable of expelling his intestinal contents with all the force of a firehose under full pressure. (Riot cops, take note.) This knowledge is the only thing that keeps me from giving his navel a gentle poke when I know he'd like relief — among all the plans I have for Charlie's room, chiseling solidified baby crap off the walls is not included.

Well, that and my grudging awareness that it's probably not a good idea to play with the kid's intestine every time I'm feeling lucky.

Too bad. I'll just have to satisfy myself with playing Operation on him. It'll come in handy if his hernia turns out to need surgical correction.

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