Me and my fancy birth defect

Image by artist Robert Stokes

I was born with pectus escavatum. Go ahead and Google that if you want, but fair warning, any images you come across will be kind of gross. They’re not upsetting by any means and gross might actually be overstating it, but it’s a major physical birth defect, so you should have some idea of what you’re getting into.

But I’ll let the Mayo Clinic give the basics:

“Pectus excavatum is a condition in which a person’s breastbone is sunken into his or her chest. In severe cases, pectus excavatum can look as if the center of the chest has been scooped out, leaving a deep dent.

While the sunken breastbone is often noticeable shortly after birth, the severity of pectus excavatum typically worsens during the adolescent growth spurt.

Also called funnel chest, pectus excavatum is more common in boys than in girls. Severe cases of pectus excavatum can eventually interfere with the function of the heart and lungs. But even mild cases of pectus excavatum can make children feel self-conscious about their appearance. Surgery can correct the deformity.”

I had that surgery, when I was 5. It lasted 3 hours. They cut open my chest, pulled my breastbone forward, and sewed me up. Just writing about it puts pressure on my chest, like its ears are burning.

I’ve been thinking about my pectus escavatum a lot lately. I got sick again recently, and I say “again” because I have been sick an inordinate amount over the last 12 months, and every time it has been an upper respiratory issue. I had pneumonia and coughed so much that I fractured a rib. I’ve had bronchitis twice. I have been a mess. And while dealing with my most recent bout of bronchitis, one of my doctors mention that perhaps my abnormal chest might have something to do with it.

Yes, I had the surgery, but that was in 1980, and even today the idea that you can simply correct something like that so that it’s totally normal is a stretch. My chest is substantially better, yes, but it’s still abnormal.

And while many, many years of alcohol, carbs, and a sedentary lifestyle have contributed to the buddha I carry above my waist, it’s amplified by my complete lack of a chest.

I’ve never spent much time thinking about my chest. I don’t take my shirt off very often, I suppose because of it. Every once in a while I have to explain the scar that spans the width of my breastbone and the other scar, higher up on my chest, marking where they removed an excess lump of cartilage when I was 18. Very few people have ever noticed the tiny scars I still have where the tubes went in.

Thinking about it now hasn’t changed my overall perspective as far as how being born with such a drastic defect has impacted me. I doubt that most people with such things really think about them.

But I am now realizing how hard this must have been on my parents.

I don’t know how prominent the pectus escavatum was when I was born. I’m thinking it couldn’t have been that drastic just given the general physical shape of a baby. It would have become more pronounced as a I got older.

It’s not like this was an indentation in my leg or something: important organs live in your chest, important organs that needed room to grow.

As if the birth defect wasn’t bad enough, my parents then had to sit through a 3+ hour surgery that involved cutting open their 5 year old son’s chest. I can’t even imagine what that had to have been like for them. I’m having a hard time just thinking about it.

When you have a kid, every little thing takes on new meaning. Things I haven’t thought about in years have taken on new meaning. Things I do and see every day have taken on new meaning. Every single thing is different.

Like my fancy birth defect.