It was intermission at a senior citizen variety show I attended with a bunch of my folk dancing friends (another of our friends was performing with her line dance group), and I stood to relieve some pressure I was feeling in my abdomen, radiating around to my back. Maybe I’d been sitting too long. Unfortunately, stretching didn’t help.
By the time I returned home, my stomach hurt worse and I had a slight fever. My husband, Greg, made dinner, but I couldn’t eat.
As the hours wore on, the pain intensified. Greg went to bed.
I wondered whether it was a good idea to wait until morning to call the doctor. Fortunately, my health insurance has a 24 hour nurse line, so I called it. By this time I was vomiting yellow liquid. I described my symptoms to the nurse, and she recommended I go to the emergency room.
I woke Greg and asked him to take me to the ER. We got there a little before 10 PM.
I assumed I had a kidney infection. I expected the ER staff to culture a urine specimen, confirm my fears, prescribe an antibiotic, and we’d go home—easy peasy.
But after the urine sample, they sent me for an MRI and an ultrasound. At 1 AM the doctor told me his diagnosis: three “marbles” (gallstones) were causing my pain. The recommended treatment was removal of the gallbladder. Or I could wait and see what happened.
The gallbladder, a pear-shaped organ in the right side of your abdomen just below your liver, is a storage tank for bile, which is produced by the liver and helps digest fats and certain vitamins. The gallbladder squirts bile into the small intestine when you eat.
If the gallbladder is removed, the liver will still make bile when it senses you are eating something fatty, but it will dump it directly into the small intestine. That may cause diarrhea, especially soon after surgery, while the liver is learning to compensate for the loss of the gallbladder. However, if you cut out or greatly decrease your fat intake for a few weeks, you can help your liver make the transition without too much inconvenience.
I had no desire to wait and see what happened. If I had another day of severe pain, I would be very unhappy, to say the least. So I opted to go ahead with surgery. That was a little more than three weeks ago.
I missed out on playing hand bells on Maundy Thursday and Easter Sunday. I cut out all my activities for a week and a half. By then I was feeling SO much better. I realized I’d been having low-grade chronic pain since before Christmas. So that Monday I went to the gym (doing a lighter workout than usual), went grocery shopping, and attended my hand bell choir rehearsal. Playing hand bells isn’t too physical, is it? But I forgot I stand for an hour and a half during rehearsal, and after being fairly active that morning, it was too much. I was exhausted. Though I’d thought I was ready to resume my activities, I couldn’t do much for the next week.
People kept saying they didn’t expect to see me so soon after surgery, and I didn’t understand why. I felt great—pain free. But at my two week follow-up, the surgeon told me the recovery time was four to six weeks. Why didn’t they tell me that in the hospital?
This past Thursday I went hiking for the first time in a month. I took the easiest trail I know, the Pima Canyon trail in South Mountain Park. I walked in one mile, turned around and came back the same way. The change in elevation was only 70 feet, spread out over the mile, so there were no steep sections. It took me an hour, but that’s because I walk slowly.
So far so good. I might go folk dancing next Tuesday night.
What did I learn from this experience? Two things. First of all, unless you have medical training, don’t self-diagnose yourself. Secondly, don’t rush healing; if you push yourself, you could set yourself back.
For more information about gallstones, read this.