An omphalophobic is a person with a fear of belly buttons. People who have this fear grapple with all kinds of irrational issues involving their navels. This is a stupid thing to be. I am an omphalophobic.
Belly buttons are creepy. Think about it. Have you ever seen an umbilical cord? It’s a wet tube of flesh that, while in utero, connects your stomach to that of your mother and delivers the nutrients needed for you to develop into a fully formed human being. As soon as you are born your umbilical cord is snipped off, leaving a small section (a stump) of it behind, which withers (rots) and falls off ten to twenty-one days later. What’s left behind is your belly button. Some of us are left with innies: frightening, cavernous lint traps, while others are left with outies: nasty little mounds of knotty flesh. Sometimes there can be complications. I read an account of one unfortunate woman in Southern California who gave birth to a healthy baby girl and took her home. The woman cared for her daughter’s umbilical stump for eight days, wiping it down with alcohol as the doctor had instructed. On the ninth day the woman discovered that the stump had fallen off prematurely. A syrupy substance oozed from her beautiful infant’s wound. It looked like pea soup.
I am at work, at a Mexican restaurant in a small New England city by the sea, bending over to clean off a table when a sharp pain shoots through my belly button. I begin to think that maybe my belly button is finally coming undone and my viscera is about to spill onto the floor. I know, logically, that this is a ridiculous and impossible scenario, but in order for me to be absolutely certain I need to go into the men’s room so that I can use the mirror.
What I see in the mirror certainly explains my discomfort, but doesn’t make any sense and does little to comfort my increasing anxiety: there appears to be a large seed stuck in my belly button. I haven’t eaten any seeds lately. Even if I had, I can’t imagine any situation that would lead to one somehow becoming lodged in my navel, but that doesn’t change what I see. I have never been comfortable putting my fingers into my belly button, so I take a couple of deep breaths to try and gain some composure before beginning to use my index finger and thumb to dig this mystery seed of pain from my navel. My fingers are too thick to fit in my belly button and grab the object, so I try using my pinky to scrape it out—to no avail. Now my heart is racing. There’s something lodged in my disgusting belly button, and I have no idea what it is or how it could have possibly gotten there. The only thought in my head is that I need to get it out of me. I start trying to flush it out with water—splashing water into my navel and pushing on my lower abdomen—I am screaming silently to myself now, mostly asking incoherent and disjointed one word questions: How? Why? What? Seed? The water proves no more effective than my fingers. At this point I am overwhelmed with frustration so I go into the kitchen, grab a couple of toothpicks out of the box on the counter and head back into the bathroom. It does not take long after I begin digging and scraping with the toothpicks that I catch a glimpse of something puzzling. There appear to be several short, thick black hairs in my belly button along with the seed, is the seed tangled in these hairs? The thought disgusts me, and is quickly pushed from my mind because the hairs do not actually seem to be holding the seed to me. Were I thinking rationally at that moment, perhaps I would have been able to process the reality of what I was looking at, not that it would have done me much good, but knowing the truth, perhaps I would have been able to calm down a bit.
This is when an epiphany hits me. I’m standing in the men’s bathroom, shirtless and digging through my belly button with toothpicks, and I realize that whatever is in my belly button is not a seed: it is either a growth of some sort, or something that belongs inside of me has somehow started to push its way out. Either way, trying to remove this object from my navel with toothpicks was only going to make things worse. I needed to see a doctor, and it was already ten o’clock at night, which meant that the emergency room was my only option.
Before picking me up from work, my wife Lola had gone on Web MD and learned that one of the more likely causes of my current state was an umbilical hernia: an outward bulging (protrusion) of the abdominal lining, or part of the abdominal organ(s), through the area of or around the belly button. We’re on our way to the hospital and I am trying to remain as calm and composed as possible.
“It’s a quick operation and then they send you home with a big bottle of Vicodin,” Lola tells me from the driver’s seat.
“How big?” I ask,
“Really big”, she assures me.
The triage nurse is having a bad night despite the relative emptiness of the ER waiting room. Initially the nurse lets me know that the only time she’s ever heard of a situation like mine was “in that Sigourney Weaver movie with the alien.” When I tell the nurse that I think I have an umbilical hernia because of what my wife found on Web MD she begins a tirade that opens with the proclamation that, “Web MD is the scourge of ER’s nationwide.” However, once she has finished venting her frustrations, she ultimately confesses that my problem may in fact be the beginning of a hernia, and not an alien. Then, without even asking me to lift up my shirt, the nurse declares that she is sure that I will be fine and orders me to take a seat in the waiting room.
Two hours later I am stretched out on a hospital bed, wearing a johnny and waiting for the physician to walk in. At this point I have resigned myself to my fate. I just want to get my surgery over with so that I can get whatever’s sticking out of me removed (or pushed back in) so that I can get home with Lola(who is reading patiently in the corner) and my Vicodin and put this whole horrific experience behind me.
After another hour of waiting the doctor pulls back the curtain around my bed and walks in.
“Hello”, says Doctor Wong, a genuinely happy smile on his face, “So you have something coming from your belly button?”
He speaks with a slight accent of indeterminate far Eastern origin.
“Yeah,” I reply to the doctor’s question, “I think it’s a hernia. Let me show you,” and I lift up the front of my johnny.
“You have a dog?” he immediately asks me.
“No.” Because he seems interested in my pets I respond with, “I have two cats.” Then he comes out with it.
“It look like a tick. I think you have a big dog tick.”
Doctor Wong then starts poking in my belly button with a piece of a tongue depressor, a satisfied and oddly delighted expression on his face.
“Oh yeah. Definitely a tick, you want to see?” he asks Lola, oblivious to the fact that her skin has gone pale. “Look, you see its legs move?”
“I have to find something to get underneath its head with. I’ll be back.”
Five minutes later the doctor comes back into the room with a pair of surgical tweezers. He removes them from their sterile packaging; I feel great relief to see that they are fairly dull. Doctor Wong then takes a close look at the tweezers in his hand.
“I got the wrong ones.”
He then exits through the curtain and returns a few minutes later armed with tweezers that look like they can gauge elephant hide.
“Much better.” He says.
“Is this going to hurt?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
I tilt my head back, close my eyes and focus on breathing. I’m attempting to practice basic relaxation techniques and all the while I can feel Doctor Wong digging a huge tick out of my belly button with a pair of needle nose tweezers. It stings, but not a lot.
“Okay, you want to see?” The doctor asks, and drops the tick, now lifeless, into my hand.
“Thank you.” I say exhaustedly and start to sit up.
“Hold on. I have to make sure I get the whole head.”
I lie back down and close my eyes again. This time I can really feel him digging, and pulling with the tweezers. I try not to think about the beautiful baby girl in California whose belly button oozed pea soup. I have a quick vision in which the doctor pushes too hard on the tweezers and my guts start spewing out uncontrollably as technicians rush in screaming medical clichés.
And then he is done. I look down at my belly and see that I am still intact. There’s no pea soup. No bile or intestines are seeping out of my belly button; just the slightest trickle of deep crimson blood.