I don't have a belly button. The doctor used his navel scooper, carved it out and threw it away. In its place, he left me with a crooked, 6-inch scar. I could be suspected of being...

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I don’t have a belly button.

The doctor used his navel scooper, carved it out and threw it away. In its place, he left me with a crooked, 6-inch scar. I could be suspected of being an alien. I assume they have mothers, so they must have navels, too.

Mine was a cute little half-innie, half-outie, and it gathered lint that I was saving, hoping one day I would have enough to knit a sweater or a pair of socks. Easy come, easy go.

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Here’s what happened:

Thanks to hepatitis C, my cirrhotic (scarred) liver cannot process all of the proteins and other food nutrients carried by my blood to my liver. This unprocessed gunk would form into a big ball of mush in my gut.

The rest of me is fairly trim, but my stomach looked like I had been drinking beer on a Barcalounger for the better part of my life. Sometimes it got so big it would press against my lungs and make it hard to breathe. I would have to go to the hospital, where the docs would drain as much as six liters of mossy brown fluid out of me.



Editor’s note



Six years ago, Seattle high-school teacher Jack Slater was diagnosed with advanced hepatitis C — end-stage liver disease. Two years ago, he fell severely ill. A year ago, he was put on the waiting list for a transplant.


Slater is chronicling his personal journey through this life-or-death wait in occasional essays for The Seattle Times. Since he last wrote (Nov. 17) about being called to the hospital as a “back-up” transplant recipient, Slater spent 10 more days in the hospital as doctors tried to mitigate severe pain caused by bursitis in his hip. He was sent home last week, just in time for Thanksgiving.


We’ll continue to publish Slater’s essays, and monitor his progress, in the coming months.

The swelling always came back within 24 hours. I had to button my pants below the steep precipice of my gut. I looked like the high-school boys whose sagging drawers are so troubling to the public. Brooks Brothers will never go there, but the kids are all right. I used suspenders.

So as my abdomen increased in size due to the accumulation of this vile gunk, my beautiful little navel began to grow and swell and push out from my body. It extended out a good 3 inches and stretched to be about 2 inches wide. It was ugly on top of ugly. A belly button worthy of a Cyrano de Bergerac riff: “Before I enter a room, my navel has preceded me by a full quarter of an hour.”

Nobody ever saw it, of course, except my wife and the medical people, who told us this was “normal.” It’s amazing what a person can become used to.

One day I noticed that the offending tuber was turning black and blue. So I went to the doctor, who squeezed it, pinched it and said: “You. Surgery. Tonight. Go with this nurse. Don’t eat.” OK, I say, but what’s going on down there? He said I had a herniated umbilical, which was leaking and adding to the toxic-waste dump sloshing around inside of me. So they cut me open and patched it with a sheath of NASA-inspired material — sort of a permanent Band-Aid to keep everything in place.

ALAN BERNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
First stop out of the hospital after a bout with bursitis, unrelated to his hepatitis C, Jack Slater wants to “look good, feel good” and gets a haircut at Ballard Supercuts. Pete Byrdy is the stylist.

I didn’t know I would have to give up my navel. It’s OK by me, but I would like to have had a chance to say goodbye or at least take a Polaroid. The doctor said if I had a problem with the loss, I could always get a tattoo to indicate some humor about the whole deal.

Conversations with doctors are often confusing for me. They might well have warned me about the navelectomy, but I didn’t catch it. They carefully explain things to me, and I make like the intelligent, deeply comprehending person I wish I could be. I nod and furrow my brow. The doctors’ words run down one of my deep furrows and keep right on running, out to the foggy sunset.

My wife is usually with me at these appointments, taking notes. Then, while driving home, she tries to explain what was said. I just can’t focus on all the variables. I feel lost in a huge forest of old growth, and I see the awesome tree but not the lumber tract doomed to be clear-cut.

I have had other surgeries in my life, and eventually I ask the doctors if they’ve ever done this particular procedure before and what the odds are. They always say, “Well, you could die.”

It seems that for any surgery there is a risk of complications from anesthesia and how that affects the suspended life form that you become while they are fooling around with your precious bodily fluids. Otherwise, the odds seem to be pretty good as long as nobody leaves a wristwatch in there. We’ve all heard the stories.



About this project



• Jack Slater, 57, is on a medical leave from the Seattle Public Schools, where he teaches history. He was born in Chicago, graduated from Calvin College in Michigan and worked for 20 years as an actor and humorist. He has been a community and political activist and is an avid artist and gardener. He lives in Ballard with his wife, Deborah Swets, the executive director of CityClub.

You can reach him at jslater@seattletimes.com.

• Seattle Times photographer Alan Berner can be reached at 206-464-8133 or aberner@seattletimes.com.

• To reach an editor about this project, contact Jacqui Banaszynski at 206-464-8212 or jbanaszynski@seattletimes.com.

You take your life into your own hands when you drive to the grocery store, but surgery feels more like getting on an airplane. Never mind the statistical argument that flying is safer. Whenever I board a plane, I think: “Well, today I die. It’s someone’s time to die, and they’re on my flight.”

(True story: Once I was waiting to board a plane, and, as we came to the door, the elderly lady in front of me turned around and mumbled, “No, siree. Not this airplane. Not today.” And she returned to the terminal. What to do, what to do? I took a deep breath and found my seat.)

You just gotta let go. So far so good. Surgeons are the top of the medical profession, and transplant surgeons are the top of the top. You just gotta let go.

So what is a herniated umbilical? It’s a rip, a protrusion in the fabric of the universe of your body. More specifically in the continent of your umbilical. Who knew we still had one of those? What is it doing in there? My mother and I continue to have a deep connection, so do I need one of these as a fully-born man? Is it like the appendix — useless, but dangerous?

You can help

I wish I could have donated my navel to someone like a burn victim, but every part of my body is on fire with this virus. How about you? Care to share? Our nation — our mighty, wealthy and suffering nation — needs your help, and not just to go shopping as recommended by the president.

We need vastly more blood than what is donated. Five percent of the eligible population donates with any regularity. Surely you haven’t forgotten that we are at war. We need big reserves of blood. Our country needs many things: better education, more mass transit, healthier topsoil, protected groundwater and much more donated blood. Go for it. Sign yourself up as an organ donor while you’re at it. Nationwide there are more than 70,000 people waiting for some kind of organ donation; more than 6,000 die each year waiting.

I don’t understand why people are reluctant to be organ donors. Every day, year after year, folks are using and abusing their organs without thinking about all the miracles involved in the nonstop beauty of lungs breathing and hearts beating. We listen, see, think and digest effortlessly. Most days, most of us don’t have headaches or indigestion or have to think about our umbilical. We should fall down on our knees and praise creation for all the automatic health we have. Think of the winos who manage to stay alive on a diet of Mad Dog 20/20, cigarettes and French fries. They are a testament to the durability of the body.

The body is a miracle, true enough, but it is not immaculate. Every day our little calorie factories are causing us to burp, sneeze, fart, snore, pee and poop. We have bad breath, cavities, toe jam, dandruff, skin cancer (From the sun! The giver of all life! What kind of joke is this?). We produce body odor, athlete’s foot, yellowing teeth and lumpy globules of fat under our skin. Our back is not well designed for sitting. We have spontaneous cancerous tumors in our brains, breasts, ovaries and prostates. Our hair falls out. We have genetic predispositions for genius and severe disease. Chopsticks may cause osteoarthritis. Beethoven turned deaf (not that you can tell). Claude Monet went blind. Bob Marley died of cancer at age 36.

We take our bodies for granted while we have them. But once we depart this temporal turmoil, that same ignored body suddenly warrants costly and extreme attention and must be stuffed like a hunting trophy and tucked in a titanium casket.

I understand, of course, that what we are doing is seeking a peace that comes from following traditions that long pre-date these days of successful transplant surgery. But knowing what we know now, to refuse to donate is almost unforgivable. It’s like saying: “We’d rather give to the worms.” The same body that gave us aches, pains and poor self-image is suddenly sanctified.

Organs are treasures

But consider the organs! They have amazing and miraculous properties. They are little treasure chests stored with trillions of happiness cells still cooking in the rapidly decaying carcass. Upon your demise, please pass them along — quickly — to this brave new world we live in. Your mother taught you to share. So what’s the problem? Don’t let your relatives bury or burn you with your good organs and your toe jam.

Your sweet, departed grandparents are whispering to you in your unguarded moments. They, too, are telling you to share. We are so wrapped up in survival that we neglect our magnificent spirits. And it’s too bad really, because our grannies are telling us to enjoy life: Drive a motorcycle across the Gobi Desert, stop worrying about the rent, make love, make art on the walls, sing with passion, write love poems and teach our children well. Better that than busted livers, bad credit ratings or Fox’s new fall lineup.

Your dearly departed grandmother’s spirit encourages you to live joyously, to create life (lovemaking) and give life (organ donation). She wants you to do good every chance you get, which will then give wings (or motorcycles) to your earth-bound spirit. She taught your mother to share, and she taught you likewise. Don’t let your relatives bury or burn you with your good organs and your aching back.

Some folks think the doctors will be hasty in pulling the plug on you in order to get their hands on your organs. (Not true, of course.) People think organ donation will render them unfit for an open casket. (Not at all true.) Many people think that it is against their religion. (Only rarely true.)

Truth is, it will be painless and quite possibly the most wonderful thing you can do along with raising your kids to be good citizens. (When I used to get like this in my high-school history class, my students would encourage me by saying: “Preach on, Mr. Slater.” I know I am preaching. Can I get an amen?)

We need to get President Bush to stand tall at his next State of the Union speech and say: “Oh, by the way, I urge all Americans to become organ donors. It’s the right thing to do. Jesus, Yahweh, Allah, Jerry Falwell and Pamela Anderson would approve. It’s pro-life to the max.”



Like to be a donor?



LifeCenter Northwest has information about how to become an organ donor, including registering online: www.lcnw.org

A surgeon at the hospital told me that the Pacific Northwest has a higher percentage of donors than almost anywhere in the country. It’s one of the reasons it’s called the GREAT Pacific Northwest. But there’s still a shortage.

The work of the Moyer Foundation deserves a lot of credit for buying TV ads to encourage organ donation. Jamie Moyer is a pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. This year he won the Roberto Clemente Award for his contributions to the community, and 21 games for the Mariners. That, non-baseball fans, is hard to do. Moyer is 40 years old. Could he have an arm transplant? Maybe someday.

Every now and again, someone suggests making it legal to pay surviving families who donate the organs of their loved ones. Money to help pay for the funeral, etc.

How much is an organ worth? If I had $1 million, I would gladly pay it. If I had to paint your house, clean your bathrooms and tutor your kids, I would. I’ve still got a lot on my mind: books I want to read, roses I want to grow, neighbors’ kids I want to help raise.

I want — we all want — our life.

Physical changes

The good thing about losing my huge belly button is that my abdomen seems to have stopped swelling. I look better. Even through this entire ordeal I maintain my vanity. You’ve got to look good to feel good, right? Like the old Gillette razor commercials proclaimed on the Friday night fights: “Look sharp. Feel sharp. Be sharp.” I try not to leave my pajamas on all day. I want to look good when my wife gets home from work.

There remain other problems of vanity and health. I don’t wear short-sleeved shirts anymore, as my arm muscles are about half what they used to be and I have a number of small sores on my arms. My shoulders are bony. I have lost weight around my neck and gained wrinkles.

Because my blood circulation is not so good, I am easily cold. It could be 72 degrees, but if there is a breeze I will need a jacket. Some days my face is quite blotchy with red patches.

Because of an excess of bilirubin in my unprocessed blood, my skin itches, especially when I am trying to fall asleep at night and my mind is somewhat unoccupied. Then the tiny itches terrorize me head to toe. A good sedative, I’ve discovered, is listening to Noam Chomsky on tape.

The interior of my feet gets cold at night. My skin feels room temperature, but this cold is deep inside of my feet. Sometimes I feel just fine, but my eyes are tired. That’s a strange one.

Building character

It’s not easy to feel sharp. Every day I take 200 mgs of a strong laxative that keeps me forever on the lookout for the nearest bathroom. My intestines make waterfall-like sounds all day long and I have magnificent gas production. Sometimes I am not fit to be out in public. I take this laxative to facilitate a quick flush-out of all food intake. My liver has lost the ability to thoroughly process food carried to it by the bloodstream, so some of the toxic, unprocessed stuff eventually flows into the brain, where it causes any number of addled behaviors, like brushing my teeth with Cortaid. Short-term memory flies away; scatterbrained is a nice way of putting it. So I take a powerful laxative so that poop happens, so that consciousness happens, too.

This long-term relationship with the bathroom quite naturally leads to hemorrhoids. I have needed radical help in lessening that discomfort. A nice young doctor, along with his scalpel and his attractive assistant, went searching where the sun don’t shine. Even my wife took the grand tour. This sort of thing builds character, and currently my character is at an all-time high. Dignity isn’t even a consideration. I need help, and I have insurance. Peace in the valley. Joy in the morning.

The experience of getting up in the night to take a pee makes one aware once again of the beauty of the human mechanism. Wouldn’t you agree that it is indeed a miracle that we don’t pee as we sleep? Involuntary bladder and intestinal control is one of our greatest evolutionary achievements.

Thank goodness a long time ago our forebears took exception to the notion that it made no difference if you slept where you pooped. The body happily evolved to take care of things automatically. Thank you, Mr. and Ms. Ancestor, and all your consecutively smarter and more curious offspring. We need to do more of the same for the good of our great big human family.

So donate an organ, and we will all holds hands in the circle of life and remind ourselves of those comforting words written by someone I can’t remember now:

Ye fearful saints

Fresh courage take

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy

And shall break

In blessing on your head

Now let’s go eat (with a tip of the cowboy hat to Lyle Lovett).