Is a part of your body trying to kill you? I didn’t think so. It was an unassuming Thursday night, until 11pm when I was doubled over in pain, curled around the toilet. I thought I had food poisoning: I couldn’t stand upright, everything hurt, and after trying (and failing) to make myself throw up, I was panicking. This was the beginning of my first big medical adventure.
I live by myself and needed someone to suffer with me/ensure that I didn’t die alone only to be slowly eaten by my cat, but it was late and I was trying to be polite. I called my boyfriend, who is used to putting up with my shit, but he didn’t pick up (NOT THAT I AM BITTER). Around midnight I gave in to fear and roused my sleeping parents. I protested their suggestion of taking me to the emergency room (“It’s just food poisoning!”), but my dad pointed out that if he was driving all the way over to get me in the middle of the night, we were doing goddamn something. We went to the closest ER because, though I brought a trash can with me, puking in my dad’s car would mean certain disownment. The nurses there hooked me up to an IV, gave me some morphine (that was cool), did some medical stuff, and I returned to my parents’ house with pills for “abdominal pain of unknown cause.” So that was productive.
Friday I threw up and slept all day. Saturday and Sunday I felt less nauseated but still had a lot of pain and couldn’t walk upright. (I should also point out that my remorseful boyfriend brought over delicious homemade chicken soup… that made me sicker—again, NOT THAT I AM BITTER). The pills weren’t helping, so I paid a visit to my doctor on Monday. After poking me for a while, she noted the pain was near my gallbladder, but that, “Gallstones are more common in older women who are overweight or who have lost a bunch of weight, so it’s not likely you have them.” Just in case, she sent me on a fun adventure of getting my first CAT scan and a variety of ultrasounds (including a transvaginal ultrasound, which is just as fun as it sounds). At 7 p.m. (!) we got a call from my doctor that, indeed, I had the old-lady disease of gallstones and I needed my gallbladder out ASAP. After a full day of shuttling between appointments, it was a relief to have an answer as to why I felt like death, but the thought of surgery was scary.
If you are wondering what the fuck a gallbladder does, you are not alone (I didn’t know, and I majored in biology). Your liver makes bile, which the gallbladder stores before releasing it into the small intestine. Bile helps you digest fats, which was why the rich chicken soup caused me pain: my liver was releasing bile into my gallbladder, but my gallstones had blocked the duct (“impacted”) so it was just swelling up and causing me pain (cholecystitis) (LOOK AT MY FANCY WORDS). As to why gallstones form—who knows. There are “risk factors” like diet but no direct causes.
Luckily, you don’t necessarily NEED a gallbladder, as your liver can adjust and dump bile directly into your small intestine. Apparently gallbladder removal (cholecystectomy) is now one of the most common surgeries in the U.S.—though the vast majority of my friends had never heard of it, and I only know one other person in the “fuck gallbladders” club.
Monday night was the absolute worst for me as far as pain. My abdomen was so swollen I looked like a famine victim, and it constantly felt like someone was kicking my stomach from the inside (if this is what pregnancy is like, I am not looking forward to it). Stomach or side sleeping was out of the question, and I can’t sleep on my back. I ended up folding over while seated to get drowsy then switching to my back, which allowed me to sleep a full 30-45 minutes at a time!
Needless to say, Tuesday morning I whimpered my way into the a same-day appointment with the surgeon. My mother, who as a result of recent eye surgery had gigantic dark bruises on her face (she claimed I was “stealing her thunder” by requiring surgery of my own), swallowed her vanity and took me to the appointment so that she could ask some questions. Though she had dutifully spent the night doing Internet research on non-surgical options, the immediate conclusion of the doctor was, “Yeah, you need your gallbladder out.*” He offered surgery on Thursday, then looked at my panicked face (I was imagining two more nights with no sleep) and said, “Or we can try to squeeze you in tonight.” Luckily I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink that day, so I went directly to the hospital.
I was essentially flying standby for a surgery table so I had a while to wait (I should note my phone was dead and COME ON PEOPLE WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO DO). To add to the fun, I started my period, so I had to waddle to the bathroom with my IV, wearing disposable hospital panties made out of delicate spider webs and a hospital-issue pad approximately the size of a cruise ship. On the plus side, to “warm me for surgery” I got this awesome blanket that was inflated with warm air, and some sweet socks.
When I admitted to my nurse that I was embarrassed to be having a surgery for old ladies after just turning 30, she told me kids as young as nine having their gallbladders out. She also mentioned I was lucky that my first surgery was such an easy one, which was reassuring. After six (!) hours of boredom, the anesthesiologist and a flurry of others came into my room all at once, and my bed was wheeled into the operating room.
Next thing I remember, I woke up feeling a million times better (probably due to lots of drugs, but also removal of traitor gallbladder). I tried to relay this to the on-duty nurse (as I was coming off lots of drugs, I have no idea if I was forming actual words), and soon I was put into my own recovery room, where my mom was waiting. She had promised me that she wouldn’t leave me, but apparently eight hours without food and having people stare at her freakish panda eye bruises was starting to do her in, so she skeddadled and I was alone.
Again, my hospital recovery time was enjoyable (I had laproscopic surgery, which is less invasive—my doctor friend described it as, “Tiny scars!”). Since I had been lying down all day, the nurses put things on my calves that inflated to keep the blood flowing—free leg massage! The remote-controlled bed was comfortable as hell and I was finally able to sleep. I was still in pain, but it was more, “This will eventually feel better” pain than, “Please let me die” pain. I was released to my parents’ house the next morning and spent most of the day conked out.
I was told not to drive for a week and not to lift anything over 35 lbs (because, you know, I do that). After three days, I returned to my condo (and my cat, who enjoyed stomping on my surgery scars because cats are assholes) and after five days I drove to see my boyfriend. This took a disastrous turn (I don’t know if you are catching a vibe from this relationship) when he made me laugh too much while hate-commenting during the cinematic classic,“Big Trouble In Little China”—I was in agony and folded-over sleeping again. Laughter is NOT the best medicine for people who just had abdominal surgery, apparently.
Other than that, my recovery has been pretty easy after being freed from traitor gallbladder overlord (WHO NEEDS YOU NOW, HUH?). For a while I got tired easily (from, you know, having an organ removed) and I turned into a slow-walker, which was a personal travesty for me. But two weeks post-op I felt pretty normal and after three weeks I was playing soccer again (some yoga poses still feel weird). I have to change my diet a bit while my body gets used to not having a place to store bile, which for me means avoiding foods with straight oil in them (for example: bacon is OK, almond butter is not. Painful lesson). Basically, it’s a good idea to have a bathroom readily accessible after eating for a while, just in case. I have to say, having an organ removed was pretty good as far as diets go: from all the nausea and digestive issues, I lost 10 pounds—and all it took was a week of pain and a few thousand dollars!**
When I was first diagnosed, I had no idea what was going on and I was suffering too much to do research. While the idea of going under the knife was scary and I am still getting used to “Frankenbellybutton” (apparently they PULLED MY GALLBLADDER OUT THROUGH MY BELLYBUTTON), the whole “having people take care of me” thing was actually pretty cool and recovery was short. So if you have discovered that your gallbladder has betrayed you as well, don’t panic! As a fellow young person with old people problems I have to say: You’re better off without that sonofabitch.
*When asked about non-surgical options, my surgeon told me I could either be on meds for a year that would maybe work, or risk “stone-breaking” teas that had given one of his patients pancreatitis. So it was pretty clear.
WHAT’S THAT, YOU WANT TO SEE MY GROSS SURGERY PICTURES?
Here’s my gallbladder once it was exiled from my body. You can see two gallstones; there’s a third stuck in the duct. Apparently steady surgeon hands does not apply to cameras.
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