My journey with gallstones has been painful, uncomfortable, exhausting, nauseating (literally), and just all around trying. I come to you now, three-and-a-half weeks post-surgery, to tell you about my journey.
First of all, while there are a list of symptoms for gallstones, the truth is that everyone is different and there really is no garden variety list of symptoms that everyone has. Mine began in late-May/early-June, and consisted of extreme nausea, vomiting, and as it progressed, cramping. There were some other what I call “side symptoms”, which are not specific to gallstones themselves, but rather come as a result of the ones I had. For example, due to the nausea and vomiting, I ended up constantly fatigued, light-headed, and dizzy. I also lost a decent amount of weight, the only positive. The cramping came in August, about one month before my surgery. I had to deal with all of these symptoms and “side symptoms” every, single day. They were relentless, and eventually took their toll on me not only physically, but mentally as well. Again, side symptoms.
The road to getting diagnosed was a real pain in the arse. One of the main reasons was due to COVID-19. As I’m sure many of you know, the ‘Rona made it difficult to get appointments with doctors, and my situation was no different. Unfortunately, I not only had to struggle to get in to see the doctor, but I had to go through the same hassle with the seemingly-endless tests and bloodwork. I first got a series of blood tests in June to see if anything out of the ordinary showed up. It was basic run-of-the-mill blood testing, the likes of which you get with your annual physical exam. Nothing showed up. A couple of weeks and a virtual doctor appointment later, I had to come in for a special breathing test. Again, nothing abnormal. They finally scheduled me for an ultrasound for August. By now my body was wrecked, and my soul felt like it was going to follow. The ultrasound showed not gallstones as in plural, but one big-ass stone of about 2cm. Within 24 hours I had scheduled an appointment with a surgeon for a consultation and to schedule the surgery, as there was no doubt that I would need it.
Typically, when you have gallstones they remove the entire gallbladder, not just the stones. From what I’ve learned, it is because once you start getting them, they continue to come even after you remove them. You significantly reduce the probability of getting them again if you just have the entire organ removed. Now, back to our regularly scheduled program. I managed to get an appointment with a really great surgeon only about one-and-a-half weeks after calling. I went in, he confirmed the diagnosis, and quickly came up with some tentative dates for the surgery, which I was to narrow down to one within a day or two. He continued to be his fabulous self by taking the time to educate me about not only the surgical procedure, but also how everything came to be and what life after would be like. I couldn’t have asked for a better doctor. I was to have laparoscopic gallbladder removal surgery, also called a cholecystectomy. Essentially, it is four very small incisions, two by the gallbladder, one about 2-inches south of the cleavage line, and one right above the navel.
A Hiccup in the Plan
One week before my scheduled surgery I had a full-on gallbladder attack. In the beginning I rarely got them, but as time went on I began to get them. I’ll tell you now with zero filter…they are a B****! We’re talking cramping that make my normal monthly cramps feel like nothing, nausea twice as bad…did I mention the pain? I had to much pain that I started to see spots. Keep in mind that I have a very, very high pain threshold, so for me to feel pain at all is something, let alone debilitating pain that brought me to my knees (literally). It was late at night. I called my father and he took me to the ER. I was convinced that something terrible had happened, even though I kept calm on the outside so as not to scare the crap out of my daughter and father.
As I made my way through the doors, mask on and pretending that I was fine, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that just one year ago my grandmother died in that same hospital, albeit a different part. Since we were so much alike I couldn’t help but wonder if I would meet my demise there as well. I pushed this negative overly-dramatic thought aside and tried to re-focus on pretending to be well and getting paperwork done. Three hours, a series of blood tests, and an ultrasound later, it was confirmed to be a really bad gallbladder attack, as I suspected. I just had never had one that intense before. They contemplated moving up my surgery due to my pain and discomfort, but it simply wasn’t possible. I took off work the next day, remaining in a haze of pain, nausea, hunger (yes, hunger), exhaustion, and thirst, my only respite being the hour or two that the pain meds actually worked. My daughter, sick with worry while I was in the ER while she had to remain home (COVID hospital laws), stayed home from school as well. I had another gallbladder attack on Wednesday, causing me to have to take another day off work. This one was just as bad, but since I knew what it was and that I would ultimately be fine, I didn’t go to the hospital. I knew that relief would come only after this thing was out of me.
On Monday, September 28 I had my gallbladder removal surgery. Yes, I put it that bluntly. You want me to take you through the whole process of getting to the hospital and check-in? No! Every hospital is different anyway so knowing that wouldn’t help. I will mention a few “highlights”, at least from my perspective. One, as I was being wheeled into the operating room a nurse ambushed me (hyperbole intended) and gave me a shot in my arm that prevents blood clotting. It burned like hell. I remember thinking, “Dude, you couldn’t wait five minutes until they knocked me out before giving me that?!?!” But whatever, she was just doing her job and I’m glad she did it since it was clearly for the best. I woke up foolishly expecting to feel 100% better, like a new woman who just had an ache or two and was sleepy. WRONG! Truth is, I felt like crap. I was not only sleepy (obviously), but I was in a lot of pain, pain that was just as bad, if not worse in some ways, as my gallbladder attacks. I knew that it was only temporary, but in my illogical, post-anesthesia brain, I thought it would be forever. Once again, I put on a brave face and acted like nothing was really wrong. Do you need help getting dressed? Nope! Do you want some assistance going to the bathroom? I’m good. In reality I wanted to say, “My legs feel like melted Jello, I’m still half asleep, dizzy as hell, and I’m sure I’m going to faceplant and rip my incisions open.” Luckily, that did not happen, although it was pretty darn close to it.
My mother, with my daughter in tow, took me home. I know it’s not true, but I swear she was intent on hitting every bump and hole in the road just to increase my misery. I finally got home, my mom got my pain meds for me, and I went to bed for what felt like years. The only comfortable position was on my back. Dude, I’m a stomach and side sleeper! After the anesthesia wore off I was doomed to two weeks of poor sleep since it took me that long just to be able to lie on my side. It’s been almost 4 weeks, and lying on my stomach and side, while only gives me a twinge of pain, is still incredibly uncomfortable a lot of the time.
Speaking of that 4-week mark, let me update you on my progress. I still have to watch what I eat. If I eat something with too many preservatives or worse, too much fat, I’m cursed to about 12 hours of nausea and sometimes vomiting. It took 3 weeks before I was able to go back to the gym, and even still, I have to take it easy. I estimate that I’m about 2-3 months away from being back to my normal, semi-hardcore routine. That’s the bad stuff, but I swear the good far outweighs the bad.
On a positive note, the gallbladder attacks are a thing of the past. I am no longer subjected to sharp pain that goes on for hours. While I still have quite a bit of nausea, it is nowhere near to the degree that it was pre-op. I feel stronger every day. I have days where I can handle eating more than 1-2 very small meals (think one regular-sized meal divided into two meals). My energy levels increase weekly. I’m sleeping better. Thanks to my amazing surgeon my scars are very small, completely healed, and get lighter in color every day.
By the way, yes I have lost quite a bit of weight, and yes I am looking more fit. I was already on this road before my gallbladder decided to be a butthole, but the disease gave a bit of a boost. Was it worth it? No comment. I will say that it’s no fun losing weight when one of the ways you’re doing it is bent over a toilet bowl, writhing in pain, and can barely get out of bed, let alone workout. My suggestion? Lose weight the healthy way. Learn to eat right and exercise your body.
Thank you for reading about my journey. I hope I was able to help someone by sharing this. Please remember that this is a strange illness; everyone’s experiences are different, sometimes vastly different from person to person. You can Google it and Youtube it all you want, but at the end of the day there is only so much you are going to learn because your body’s manifestation of the illness is going to be unique to you…just like mine was to me.