Dawn RodneyUntil 10 years ago, Dawn Rodney had enjoyed an active life. Outside of her full-time job as a payroll specialist, she and her husband are long-time owners of a small farm in Litchfield, ME, which is home to several chickens, two racehorses (one retired and the other still racing) and two dogs. Her days, she says, were filled with lifting heavy bags of grain and equipment, caring for her animals, swimming and kayaking — a life that she says she would have no other way.

In 2011, Dawn decided to finally take care of an umbilical (belly button) hernia that had first emerged after the birth of her son. Nearly unnoticeable at first, Dawn lived with it for several decades. Overtime, the hernia began to protrude, become painful and interfere with Dawn’s daily life.

The majority of umbilical hernias, otherwise described as holes or defects in the muscles of the abdominal wall, are often without significant discomfort, pressure or pain in the beginning. This leads many people to opt for observation over immediate treatment. However, daily physical exertion can cause them to grow until fat or abdominal contents push through it, making a visible and painful bulge. The intestine may also be strangulated inside the hernia, leading to a surgical emergency.

At her local hospital, Dawn underwent a minimally invasive (laparoscopic) procedure to treat her umbilical hernia. However, in the week following surgery, Dawn declined and experienced debilitating symptoms including extreme abdominal pain, fever and nausea. She was diagnosed with a post-surgical colon infection, one that required emergency surgery and left her with a temporary colostomy bag on her hip for three months.

Despite every expectation that she would heal quickly, Dawn took a turn for the worst — a large bulge rooted in and emerged from her stomach, an abdominal hernia that her care team treated with a hernia mesh. Unfortunately, the mesh became infected.

“From that point, there was leaking coming from my stomach constantly. I went about two years bandaging my stomach every day, trying to keep the leakage at bay,” she says. “I saw a wound specialist every week during these years to treat the leaking wound.”

These recurrent infections, she says, ruined her quality of life, forcing her to take a temporary leave of absence from her full-time job which, five months later, turned into leaving it entirely. Her husband retired from his job to do the full-time physical responsibilities that Dawn could no longer do herself.

“Devastated does not begin to cover it,” she says. “I went from being able to do everything to nothing.”

In Need of Specialty Care

Dawn’s wound care team told her to pursue her own specialists at Massachusetts General Hospital to investigate options to stop the abdominal leakage, which led Dawn to the Mass General Hernia Surgery team — one that is renowned for managing recurrent, infected and anatomically challenging hernias and serving a variety of patients with complex care histories.

“It’s absolutely devastating to have health issues and feel like you have to live with them. At this point, I was considered a unique case and would need to be seen by doctors who specialize in this area of care,” Dawn says. “Mass General was where I needed to go.”

While preparing for elective surgery at Mass General, her abdominal infection flared up and she knew there was no more time to wait. She immediately called her Mass General care team, led by George Velmahos, MD, PhD, director of the Hernia Center, who advised that she come to Boston right away for surgery.

The next day, she was treated for her infected, recurrent abdominal hernia — a complex operation guided by an expert, multidisciplinary team. The team removed the previous mesh, mended the tissues that had been damaged from the persistent infection, mobilized the muscles with special techniques and placed a new, infection-resistant mesh to close the hernia gap.

I was considered a unique case and would need to be seen by doctors who specialize in this area of care. Mass General was where I needed to go.

Dawn Rodney
Hernia patient at Mass General

Following surgery, she remained at the hospital for several days to recover under the watchful eyes of her care team.

“I just remember being treated like I was the most important patient in the hospital. The care team would come in multiple times a day to check on me. Dr. Velmahos always seemed excited to talk to me. You can tell they love what they do,” she says.

A month later, Dawn was overjoyed to be in the clear, without any lingering risk of leakage or infection.

Dawn has taken it slow over time with returning to some of her favorite activities, but says she’s enjoyed caring for her animals again and indulging in her vegetable garden.

“I was exhausted by the time I got to Mass General. But they gave me a light at the end of the tunnel,” she says.” There was no more leakage, no more bandages, no more bulge. I was just me again.”