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Jamie Kovac

Repairing Her Core

Holy Name Patient Stories - Jamie Kovac

For the first time in her life, Jamie Kovac's body was betraying her. She pushed it, working harder and longer, but instead of gaining strength, she was racking up injuries. She needed answers.

An Ivy League graduate and structural engineer, Jamie was adept at doing research. A hernia in her naval helped direct her search and she found her answer: her abdominal muscles were torn, making her core weak and no amount of physical exercise was going to fix it.

"My abdominal muscles weren't holding together anymore – no matter how much I worked out, I still looked five months pregnant," Jamie said. "I couldn't do the things that I used to find easy, such as climbing a rope with my kids. My stomach was all lumpy and if I didn't have the hernia, I wouldn't have known what it was."

Jamie had been very active her entire life. She started lifting weights in high school, when she played three different sports and continued in college as she pole-vaulted and competed in softball. When she couldn't find any competitive sports after college, she focused on weight lifting and soon amassed titles in national matches. Eight years later, she qualified for the show, American Gladiator, but tore her ACL in her first season and had to leave.

"Competing lost its allure after being on Gladiator, so I tried out for the Olympic bobsled team," Jamie said. "They put me on the skeleton – where you lie on your stomach, face down – but at the end of the year, I didn't qualify for the team."

Not one to pick up knitting or jigsaw puzzles, Jamie was still weight lifting when someone recommended she compete in a Strongman competition. One year later, she won the middleweight class, throwing a 220-lb. ball over a bar seven times. Her competitors managed three heaves.

At this point, Jamie and her husband decided to have their two children. Her pregnancies were easy and after giving birth she skied and biked, played tennis and ran, even continued weight lifting – her stamina was good. She tried qualifying for the world Spartan races but she still looked pregnant and suffered injuries: ruptured discs in her neck, pulled muscles. She was in a world of pain and knew her weak core was the cause.

"When your core is weak, your back starts hurting and then you start skipping activities to avoid the pain," Jamie said. "It can also lead to many injuries because it's not supporting the rest of your body the way it should."

Jamie needed abdominal wall reconstruction. The surgery would repair her hernia and close her abdominal muscles, which separated during her two pregnancies. A hernia is a hole in a muscle, which allows part of the abdominal lining to poke through – think of a hole in a bicycle tire with the inner tube protruding.

Through a chance meeting or maybe divine intervention, Jamie met a woman at a birthday party whose husband, Dr. Stavros Christoudias, a general surgeon at Holy Name Medical Center, specializes in this exact procedure.

"This condition happens to women who have multiple children," Dr. Christoudias said. "I think it's underdiagnosed and it's not about appearances. Abdominal muscles that need repair bow outwards and that puts unnatural stress on the spine. Like Jamie, many women with this condition have lower back pain."

Dr. Christoudias worked with Dr. Tzvi Small, a plastic surgeon at Holy Name, to do the abdominal wall reconstruction. They closed the hole from the hernia and then sewed a mesh into the abdominal muscles to keep them together.

The surgery was successful and Jamie's recovery has been slow and steady, as predicted.

"Walking around was a struggle at first. Self-care was basically impossible and it's very difficult to be a person who takes care of everyone else and not be able to take care of yourself," Jamie said, her voice cracking. "But the nurses were fantastic and I never felt like I lost my dignity. I'm so glad I found Dr. Christoudias and Holy Name – I can't tell you the impact this has had on my life."

A month after surgery, Jamie feels a little stronger each day and she is eagerly anticipating getting back to doing the physical activities she has enjoyed for so long. At 41, she isn't ready to sit on the sidelines.

"My kids compete in Spartan races and I can't wait to do it with them," Jamie said. "I spent the winter skiing with them and I want to do whatever they want to do. I've done everything in my life I wanted to before I had children, now it's their turn."