Complex hernia surgery gets Wichita woman off disability, back to work | Ascension

Complex hernia surgery gets Wichita woman off disability, back to work

For nearly five years, Tammy Williams lived with a large and painful abdominal hernia that she developed following a colon resection surgery and subsequent staph infection.

"It just kept growing and growing and growing and I developed some chronic wounds along with it," says Tammy, adding eventually it cut off the circulation to her stomach and allowed multiple organs to migrate outside her abdominal cavity.

Multiple doctors told her that she needed surgery, but not until the wounds healed and the wounds wouldn't heal until her hernia had been repaired.

"They told me without surgery, I would never work again, but no one wanted to attempt to do the surgery," says the 56-year-old Wichitan, whose painful condition caused her to quit her job as a cook and go on disability.

Then she met surgeon Ragnar Peterson, MD, with Ascension Medical Group Via Christi, who specializes in treating complex hernias like hers, and Nicole Pracht, the registered nurse who supports him.

"They didn't just save my life," says Tammy. "They gave me back my life."

First things first

Tammy saw an orthopedic specialist nearly a year and a half ago about the pain in her left knee. After noticing her abdominal protuberance, he suggested that she first consult with Dr. Peterson, who leads the Comprehensive Hernia Center at Ascension Via Christi St. Teresa.

At their first appointment in August 2020, Dr. Peterson had some good news and some bad news for the 5-foot, 1-inch, 265-pound smoker.

He could do the surgery, but she would first need to lose at least 35 pounds and give up cigarettes.

"What about the wounds?" Tammy asked, to which he replied, "What do I care about the wounds? I am going to be cutting those off anyway."

At last, she had found someone who was willing to do his part to help her, provided that she was willing to do hers.

'I wanted my life back'

"This surgery meant so much to me and I had been told by so many surgeons that they couldn't help me, I was determined to do my part," says Tammy, who through diet, exercise and medication prescribed by her family doctor, eventually lost the pounds she needed to in order to get her body mass index under 40.

Dr. Peterson and Pracht encouraged her along the way, including standing firm about quitting smoking.

"I knew that Dr. Peterson would not do the surgery unless I did and I wanted my life back," says Tammy, adding that she went through every level of nicotine patch before deciding she was ready to give it up on her own.

Finally, on May 12, she was admitted to Ascension Via Christi St. Teresa, to begin the pre-op process of stretching the abdominal wall to provide room for the organs that had moved into her hernia. She remained in the hospital and a week later, Dr. Peterson successfully performed the complex hernia surgery that Tammy needed to fully recover.

By early August, she was off disability and was newly employed full-time as a dietary manager at a rehabilitation center.

"I never would have gotten this job if I hadn't had the surgery," says Tammy, who says she "bawled like a baby" at her final postoperative visit with Dr. Peterson and Nicole. "It was like leaving my family."

"I'm going to miss you guys," she told them. "But I am really thankful I don't have to come back."

Yes, she can

Today, Tammy, who could barely get around prior to her surgery, is down to 187 pounds, thanks in part to all the steps she gets in at work.

She no longer experiences back problems caused by "stomach muscles not doing their job" and getting up and down, taking the stairs and being on her feet is no longer the problem it once was.

Tammy likely still will require knee replacements in the future.

But for now, she says she's enjoying being financially independent and playing a more active role in the lives of her three daughters, son and 21 grandchildren.

Her biggest joy, she says: Finding things that she can do that she couldn't do before.

"I can open doors. Tie my own shoes. Take a shower," she says, adding with a laugh. "I can even go to the toilet without needing a special seat."