Warning: This post discusses some potentially icky medical things. You have been warned.
So. Where have I been? Oh, you know. Here. There.
Yeah, let me back up and clarify that statement a little. In early January, I started having what I thought were back problems. I’ve had back issues since I was twelve when I discovered that linoleum and roller skates do not mix. These problems in January were a bit more powerful than I was used to–they involved excruciating pain and vomiting–but they were enough like the other times my back flared that I didn’t think about it. I took pain meds and went to the chiropractor. Problem solved!
For a week. Cue another attack. Two days later, another. To say I was starting to get scared would be an understatement. And then, late January, I spent a week in what was effectively one long attack. The pain almost never ceased, and anything I ate would come back to haunt me in the worst of ways. I used the word ‘violent’ when describing this to my doctor later, let’s say. Speaking of the doctor, I immediately went in the Monday after the long attack. She listened to me and immediately asked if kidney stones ran in the family.
Crud. Yes, they kinda did.
“But wait!” I hear the cry. “Kidney stones don’t usually put people in the hospital.” Keep reading, friends. I really drew the short stick on karma this year.
I had an X-ray done at the same appointment, and it came back ‘yep, you have things in your kidneys. FYI, there’s something else weird. Please to be having a CAT scan. Kthx.’ I had more attacks that week, and missed pretty much the entire week of work–this would become my life for the next six weeks. I got my CAT scan, and when the results came in, suddenly it all made sense. Sure, I definitely had kidney stones (in BOTH kidneys, sized 5mm to 7mm) but I also had GALLSTONES. Oh, hai the thing that was really causing me issue! The kidney stones were (and actually still are) floating contentedly in no hurry to pass. My gallbladder was another story.
After another week of playing ‘have an attack, take Norco’, I found myself waking at 3am the morning of my gastroenterology appointment in the grip of the worst attack I’d had yet. (Yes, yet. IT GETS WORSE.) My mother drove me to the emergency room. I did enough vomiting along the way there that by the time I arrived, the pain had ebbed. They did blood tests and then sent me home because ‘I already had a GE appointment.’ (I’m sure there are some out there going ‘WTF? I had gallbladder problems and they got that sucker out within one or two attacks.’ I’ve had a LOT of people say the same thing. Brace yourself. The ridiculousness increases.) I went to see the GE doctor, who, I’d like to say, was friggin’ amazing. She had my CAT scan results AND my blood test results. Boy howdy did I have a pissy gallbladder, and I also had a stone in a duct. Oh, and my liver enzymes were elevated. Her professional opinion was to get that f*cker out as soon as possible. She told her assistant to schedule me for an ERCP (to remove the stone in the duct) and to put in a referral to surgery, to have it done the same week as the ERCP.
If you’re paying attention, I think you can guess that didn’t happen.
The Tuesday following that Friday, I had my ERCP. I had never been under anesthesia before, but apparently I respond well. I remember the nurse saying “Okay, we’re hooking up your IV” and then I’m waking up in recovery. I woke up insanely nauseated, but they gave me some stuff for that and my mother took me home. The doctor had told my mother that my gallbladder did not yet have actual stones in it; it had what she called ‘granular sludge’ which is basically saying my gallbladder was gearing up for massive stone production, and it needed to be removed ASAP.
That VERY NIGHT I had TWO gallbladder attacks. Oh, did I mention surgery still hadn’t called? I had to call THEM the next day. The puzzled receptionist told me that, oh, gee, my file didn’t say it was urgent so they thought it was optional. But they could totally get me a consult with the doctor for TWO WEEKS OUT. Oh, it’s kinda of important? Well, she can’t take my word for it, but if my doctor calls her, she’ll bump it up. I tried to call the GE to help, but not only was one of her staff members a bitch, the poor doctor was herself out with a nasty bug.
Did I mention that while all of this is happening, I couldn’t get anyone to give me a note for work, and I was losing pay? Yeah. That too.
Fast forward two weeks! Roughly every other day was another attack, each seeming to be worse. By this point, it was close to the end of February, and I was down to eating practically nothing because it seemed everything triggered an attack. My diet had 0 fat in it, and I still got attacked. I made the joke that my gallbladder was trying to kill me.
Oh, how I wish that had been an actual joke!
I saw the surgeon on February 26, and I spilled out everything that I had been through. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any doctor look so horrified. He told me I needed that thing out ASAP, and even wrote at the top of my chart ASAP!! His scheduler was out of the office, though, so I wouldn’t hear from her until Monday. Sure. No problem. I’m not in a RUSH or anything. Somehow I made it through that weekend without an attack, but that was the calm before the storm. Monday, early, I got the call. They could get me in Weds at 4:00pm. DONE. The nightmare was almost over.
Did I say almost over? No, no, it was about to get the worst yet.
That Tuesday at noon, I started feeling an attack coming on. I was not allowed to take any pain meds except Tylenol because of the next day’s surgery. I might as well have not taken the stuff, and I took the max dose! The attack that followed was . . . horrific. There was no end. Squeamish folks, turn away. I’m about to put my descriptive skills to the test to give an analogy of the pain: imagine that someone has just taken two serrated blades, shoved them into your back, and then splayed you open. That’s fairly close to it. The vomiting? Incessant. Every two minutes. I don’t know what was coming out, but it felt evil.
At 5:00, five hours into this, my phone rang. My mother answered. It was my surgeon. They had a cancellation and could get me in at 8:00am. Yay! Mom asked what to do NOW, and when he heard what was happening, he said to get me into the emergency room ASAP and have them page him. Sickness bag in hand, we went to the emergency room, which was not just crowded but overcrowded. Ten beds, and seventy patients needing them. I have to say, though, insane kudos to the emergency staff. They hauled ass to get me seen because I was in such horrific condition. How bad? I have a distinct and clear memory of telling my mother “I don’t know how much more I can take” and it’s as close to a suicidal thought as I’ve ever had. And if you’ve read my past blog posts, you know what I went through in junior high. THAT is how bad I was.
Now, at this point, I had no idea what they were going to do. Give me drugs and send me home? Admit me? It was the latter. When I finally got back, the nurse told me that she was going to give me pain meds and anti-nausea before they did anything else. Another nurse came up and asked if she needed an IM or IV, and she said she needed an IV “because this poor thing is getting admitted.” They gave me morphine’s big brother, no less, and it took only minutes to ease the pain. I cried.
About half an hour later, I was being settled into my own room. It was a private one, too! At the end of a quiet hall. It’s like they knew I was an introvert with social anxiety. My nurse, Megan, introduced herself, and I want to say right now SHE WAS THE AWESOMEST NURSE EVER. You know how you can tell who cares and who just makes the noises? That woman had a heart. She got me on IVs for fluids–I was badly dehydrated–and antibiotics. Whoops, wait, what? Yeeeeeaaaaah. Apparently my white blood cell count was “through the roof” and I had a “raging infection.”
I slept in small catnaps all night. The pain never went below a dull ache, but they did their best to keep it there. I was sent in for surgery around 8:00, and yep, the anesthesia got me again. When i woke this time, something felt off. See, gallbladder surgery was supposed to leave you with roughly five small (0.5″) incisions. One or two right over where the gallbladder was, two on your right side, and one over the belly button. I felt a dull throbbing (no actual pain; yay meds) in those areas, but the one on my belly near my ribs was . . . more than the other two spots. No nausea this time, though. (We suspect that first incident was gallbladder induced.)
Well, it turns out that my gallbladder had turned Transformer on me. The sludge? Not dozens of small stones, but A GIANT ONE-INCH STONE. The surgeon, in his own words, “had to keep making the incision better to get it out.” I went home after an hour in recovery, and I couldn’t walk except hunched over, and Norco was my friend for the next week, but . . . it is truly terrifying how much better I still felt post-surgery rather than pre-surgery. I could start eating food again, immediately, and I have not had a single attack since.
I had my post-op appointment last week to get the results of biopsy on my gallbladder. Yeah. So. It was on the verge of complete failure, and in addition to The Monster(tm), there had been a half-inch stone blocking the bile duct. That was the reason I found myself admitted to the emergency room with a six-hour attack. The general feeling is that if I hadn’t been admitted, I might not be here anymore.
But I am! I’m now two weeks back to work, and except for some flagging strength/stamina, better than new. I hadn’t been sure whether to spill out this entire tale into the internet, but I want it in posterity just how utterly screwed up this entire situation had been. (Oh, and for the record, the surgeon knew my life had been put at risk by incompetence. He had “very strong words” with several staff members.) I’m hoping that putting this out here will inspire some people who find themselves with those early symptoms to go in to the doctor and get checked. And, for the love of the gods, if they recommend surgery, JUST DO IT. You won’t miss your gallbladder. Yeah, you now have to eat a very low-fat diet until you retrain your body to digest it, and some things might go away forever, but I’ll take that over those attacks ANY DAY.
Final stats on my ordeal:
Pounds Lost Unwillingly: 20
Weeks Spent Sick: 10
Weeks Off Work: 6
Pay Lost: $2K
Number of Pain Pills Taken: Too Many
Total Number of Attacks Since January: 25+
Hours Spent in Hospital: 18 total
Number of New Scars: 4
Size of Biggest Scar: 1.5″
Number of Friends Who Proved Why They’re Friends: Too many to count
New Appreciation for Living: PRICELESS
With my life back on track, there’s a lot happening in the wonderful world of Etta and my writing. I’ll have more info later, and hopefully some more cheerful posts as well. Until then, stay healthy, everyone! ❤