Healthwise: Consider the belly button

For too long we have yielded belly buttons to young children who are fascinated for the first time with their innies or outies, and to somewhat older bejeweled midriff exhibitionists.

Yet, these fascinating little folds of flesh lie like prehistoric cave art in the middle of our abdomens. In medical terms, they are the scar that remains after the umbilical cords that tied us to our mothers are cut. Symbolically, they are a reminder of our primordial relationship with our mothers and the ancestors who came before.

That’s a lot of responsibility for a little lint collector, which takes up less than a square inch of body surface.

My naval-gazing, if you’ll forgive the self-importance of that phrase, began last fall when surgery to reconstruct my right breast after cancer surgery required a tummy-tuck procedure.

The tuck, most noted for removing all that fat I was storing for just such a special occasion, also forced the construction of a new button.

Now I wasn’t one to expose my belly button to so much as a cold draft. But the thought of losing this familiar feature drove me to distraction.

My surgeon usually said, “God makes it right once. After that, all we can do is mess it up.” But on this occasion he kept insisting that he would make a cuter belly button for me than nature and the birthing process provided. By “cuter” he meant smaller. Once, at a patient’s request, he formed hers into a heart. I wanted no part of that. But the bigger demands of my surgery focused my attention elsewhere.

Before surgery, I could stick my index finger in my belly button. Afterwards, healed, only my pinky would fit in and all the sensations that used to rattle back to my vertebrae had gone numb.

In changing the geography of my body I felt he had messed up – not my artistic imitation breast, but my button – big time.

Nothing guarantees that the geography of our bodies won’t shift during our lifetimes. Some changes occur for natural reasons, such as pregnancies, and others for less natural reasons.

Surgeries change the order of things often in unnatural ways. A blood vessel that used to flow downward now flows up. A muscle is bent into a new shape. It is as if we could get a river to flow the opposite direction or shave the peak off a mountain.

The miracle of the body is that more often than not it will tolerate these changes – even thrives after them.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that some people seek out cosmetic surgery specifically for their belly buttons. A Web site for a plastic surgeon who specializes in belly button reconstruction features pictures of famous European sculptures of nudes.

What, he asks, draws the eye? It’s not the voluptuous mounds of flesh. It’s the tiny dimple in the middle.

A Christian Web site that persistently pops up with every belly button search answers an obscure question: “Did Adam and Eve have belly buttons?”

The Webmaster insists, “No,” because they were handcrafted by God, not linked in utero to mothers.

But I don’t believe the Creator would artistically leave blank canvases on the abdomens of these prototypes.

In Eastern religions, the site is considered to be the naval plexus, the physical center of our emotional connections to other people. In a simple Americanism, it’s the gut feeling that often guides us.

For many indigenous nations of the Americas, the umbilicus is kept in various ways and cherished.

A Cherokee friend mailed me a bit of cedar from a tree she planted over her granddaughter’s umbilicus. It was the hope of health.

After surgery, I turned to a message therapist who specializes in helping the bodies of surgery patients to recover in their altered bodies some type natural function. As she gently laid her hand over my new belly button, our talk turned to the grandmothers, my grandmothers, with their healing knowledge and physical resiliency.

I realized that the outer skin was only the surface of the umbilical connection that I have to a millennia of mothers.

These ancestors couldn’t all leave me personal journals or textbooks. So they wrote their lifeways in DNA and passed them down cell to cell, body to body, umbilicus to umbilicus.

As an adult I might not have given my belly button more than a passing thought, had surgery not altered it. There are many other parts of our bodies that may be more demanding of attention, such as our hearts and our heads.

Almost six months after my surgery, I can feel through my belly button the pulsing of a body that chooses to live. That life force makes me want to laugh big belly laughs of joy, and giggle like a baby finding her belly button for the first time.

Addendum: I’ve been meaning to mention that breast reconstruction surgery is available in some states to IHS and Medicaid patients.

IHS follows state rules for Medicare coverage when it comes to reconstruction options. About half of the states spend their federally allotted Medicare dollars on reconstructions.

Federal law requires private health insurance plans, which cover breast cancer treatment, to pay for reconstruction surgery for those who want it.

Not everyone needs or wants this kind of surgery, but it should be available to those breast cancer survivors who do. If you do, even if it has been years since your mastectomy, ask your doctor because there is a chance that it is covered by insurance, Medicaid/Medicare or the IHS.

Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she works for The Oregonian. She chronicles her recovery from breast cancer and also writes about national health care issues that concern Native peoples in this biweekly series. She is a former president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the 2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. Contact her by e-mail at briggskm@gmail.com or by mail through Indian Country Today.