I had my gallbladder removed last January. Here is a humorous essay about that experience. There are a ton of racialized disparities in pain management, which I do not cover in this essay.
It started with a salad.
My mom and I met for lunch on a Friday, at a pizza place that I had never been to, but had chosen because I was ravenously hungry. I ordered a Greek salad. It was not very good, but since I was hungry, I ate it anyway.
I couldn’t eat the next day, save for a scone and some water. It was the salad, I thought. I ordered a salad from a pizza joint. Of course it’s making me sick. At some point, I started throwing up and couldn’t stop. The vomit looked like sand; when I had nothing left in my stomach, clear bile came out of my mouth and streamed into the toilet bowl, making me look like world’s worst fountain. Imagine the famous Belgian “Mannaken Pis” statue, except it was my unlucky self bent over the toilet bowl, with a stream of yellow bile instead of water coming from my mouth.
My partner, Liam, took me to Urgent Care (conveniently across the street from our apartment!) mid-day on Saturday. When we got to the exam room, I threw up in the sink twice. More sand-barf. The urgent care doctor came into the room; he took my blood pressure, noted the sand-vomit in the sink and the sweat running down my jaundiced face (like a bunch of icicles melting in fast time-lapse), and told Liam that I needed to be taken to the Emergency Room right now.
I barely remember checking into the ER, but I was sweating a ton and had dinner plate-sized sweat stains beneath my armpits, in addition to the jaundice.
In my ER bed—after I threw up some more, this time into a bedpan–I scrolled through the current popular Twitter hashtags on my phone. It was the day of the Women’s March, and there seemed to be a lot of pictures of women smiling, holding signs, and proclaiming the importance of HASHTAG sisterhood.
I briefly wondered what “the sisterhood” would think of my shitty body’s propensity to make me physically unable to march or protest. I might just be the world’s worst feminist with a crud body to match, I thought. I updated my Twitter to say that I was in the ER.
We waited. A nurse came in to take my blood pressure and other vitals, and to draw some blood. We waited some more.
Finally, the ER doctor on duty pulled back the curtain and greeted me. “I’m going to have to admit you to the hospital,” he said as he looked over my admission paperwork. “You’re gonna be here for a while. I think the problem might be your gallbladder, but we’ll have to run some more tests to be sure.”
In addition to the potential gallbladder problems, the doctor said that my weird vitals and test results indicated that I also had something called acute pancreatitis, a condition where the pancreas becomes inflamed, and makes you reconsider what the word pain means to you. The two causes of acute pancreatitis are gallstones and heavy alcohol use. I don’t drink, so the doctor thought (correctly, as it turned out) that this other painful issue was probably being caused by my gallbladder, filled with gallstones, all of which were acting the fuck up.
Liam called my parents to let them know what was going on, and that I was going to be in the hospital for a few days. I updated my Twitter feed again to try to distract myself from yet another round of nausea and wrenching lower abdominal pain.
As my stomach knotted with cramps again—and one of the nurses hooked my IV up to a morphine drip–I re-checked Twitter to try to distract myself. Two of my friends (both disabled) had sent well wishes regarding my ER status update.
My stomach kept hurting. I continued to sweat profusely. I was glad that the morphine did its job within 15 minutes.
After I was admitted, I was wheeled to a private room on the fourth floor, which was much quieter than the ER. A couple of hours passed, and I decided to go to the bathroom, where I threw up again in the laundry hamper. This time, the vomit was bright green and had the consistency of thick snot. FABULOUS.
There were some more procedural things lined up by the medical staff: until my pancreas decided to stop being such a shit (ie: became less inflamed) I was not to have food or liquids of any kind—including water. When affected by pancreatitis, the pancreas tends to confuse any liquid (even water) with food, so you’re not supposed to drink water or other liquids because that can make the pain worse.
There was more! I had to go get an ultrasound on my gallbladder area at some point, and an MRI, presumably so the medical staff could see the horrendous, spiteful, tiny stone children that my gallbladder had created just for me. Bonus: during that ultrasound I might get to see them, too, like a fucking inverted nightmare of joyful pregnancy ultrasounds. Congratulations, they’re making you vomit sand!
One thing that I did not know before being admitted to the hospital for this surgical procedure is that the hospital assigns patients their own nurse and CNA (certified nursing assistant) every day. My nurse for the first 12 hours of my hospital stay, Katie, physically resembled Bikini Kill singer Kathleen Hanna very strongly, which I thought was weird.
By this time, it had been a few hours since the ER nurse had given me morphine, and Katie offered me intravenous Dilaudid for the pancreatitis pain. My pain level was back up to an 8 out of 10, but I’m so used to keeping quiet and/or ignoring a lot of my daily chronic pain levels that I had not really noticed that the morphine was definitely wearing off—and fast—until Katie pointed it out.
“I have seen people with pancreatitis in here screaming in pain and asking for IV painkillers on the hour,” she said. “It is completely okay for you to ask for more IV pain meds if you need them.”
After I heard that, I responded that yes, more Dilaudid would be helpful. One of the many great qualities of IV pain medicine for acute pain—at least in my extremely limited experience—is that it works quickly for some people. It also makes the time go by way faster, even if you’re not really doing anything.
My mom arrived a bit later, bearing a huge bouquet of orange flowers (my favorite color). She gave me a hug, asked me how I was doing, and we made small talk for a bit.
“I have a favor to ask you,” she said. “Could you read the latest draft of my new play? There’s a table read with the actors coming up on Thursday, and I really need your feedback.”
As I was very under-the-influence of pain meds at the time, I don’t know how helpful my feedback was.
At some point, another doctor came in and said that once the pancreatitis calmed down, I’d be scheduled for gallbladder surgery—not to take the gallstones out, but to take the entire organ out of my body. Remove the gallbladder, and painful gallstones cease to be an issue.
I was taken for my ultrasound in the evening and unfortunately did not get to see all of my tiny gallstone bros up close. My gallbladder looked weird and blurry, though, so that was good enough.
I did not sleep my first night in the hospital. One of the evening nurses gave me some IV Ativan after I told her I couldn’t sleep—this was plus the Dilaudid I’d had an hour and a half prior, at 9:30 PM—and I still couldn’t fall asleep. The nurse or a CNA would come in every two hours to note my vital signs anyway, so what was the point of trying to fall asleep?
I had another enemy in my battle for sleep that night: the calf-roller machine, which sounds like it has to do (adorably) with baby cows but is something quite different. The machine ostensibly prevents blood clots from forming in your legs while you are inactive and lying in your hospital bed, but it does so by squeezing your legs, hard, while rolling up and down. I spent the night listening to its motor, and feeling the weird knots in my legs, wishing for sleep.
Day two brought some more news: I had been scheduled for surgery! But the surgeon was still concerned about the pancreatitis and my lipase levels, so no food or drink for me.
Until my Real Housewives-esque slap-fight with pancreatitis and the resulting surgery prep, I had never felt more physically thirsty in my life. The CNA on duty gave me a couple of sponge-on-stick things to moisten my lips and mouth. I was not supposed to swallow the water when using the sponge-on-sticks, so I didn’t. My mom and Liam hung out most of the day; Liam was able to get some work done, and my mom decided to knit me a scarf to remind me of my hospital stay experience. The color I picked for the scarf was black, accented by a sickly (heh) green.
Liam went home to get some sleep and take a shower, and my dad, my brother Patrick, and his girlfriend, Joanna, came to visit. I was still on a lot of Dilaudid and very tired from not sleeping. Admitting this makes me cringe, but I don’t remember much about their visit besides getting to hear entertaining stories from Patrick about his work at a catering company.
Liam brought back some library books that I had put on hold. This was a welcome distraction. My tongue was drier than a shitty baked potato from a greasy spoon restaurant, and my lips felt like lizard skin. However, I was happy that I had remembered to ask Liam to bring me a tube of lip balm from my home collection of about 20 of them.
After Joanna and my brother left to go to an event, it was MRI time for me. The purpose of this MRI was so that the medical team could get a more accurate picture of my gallbladder and pancreas. EXCITING. I’d had an MRI once before—for a hilariously tiny, painful hairline fracture I’d sustained in my left wrist, years ago—and had gotten through that experience by repeating Frank Zappa’s song “It Can’t Happen Here” in my head for 45 minutes, until the procedure mercifully ended.
EDIT FROM FUTURE ANNA, ONE DAY AFTER THIS WAS POSTED: YES, I CAME BACK AND ADDED THE YOUTUBE VIDEOS FOR BOTH SONGS.
Here’s what an MRI is like: Medical techs help you onto a conveyor-belt sort of thing, which moves into a stark, white tube—VERY SLOWLY—that is lit up like the worst institutional lighting situation ever created by humankind. The machine itself is something that might actually be more at home in a Kubrick movie set in the future than in a hospital setting.
The MRI tube fits around the human body—snuggly, in some cases, as I found out when I realized that my nose was about a half-inch away from being able to touch the top of the tube once I was fully inside. The techs give you a call button for you to push in case the experience of having your insides scanned while you’re inside of a stark white, bad science fiction-y metal tube is too intense. They can also communicate with you through a fancy two-way radio once you’re in the machine.
And then there is a fuck-ton of noise and banging. This goes on for 40-45 minutes. Imagine if Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music was a medical procedure instead of one of the most notoriously bad albums in history (it’s just guitar feedback), and you will begin to understand why full-body MRIs make some patients anxious to the point of panic attacks.
I got through this MRI without having a panic attack by very quietly humming “Spanish Flea” by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass for most of the procedure. This is a song that I like to hum to myself when I am having a panic attack for no reason, or am otherwise feeling like AHHHHHHHHHHHH I AM GONNA FREAK OUT RIGHT NOW for no reason, often due to my low-grade anxiety or PMS.
I was wheeled back to my room. My tongue was still dry, and felt kind of strangely dusty. I imagined my mouth as a desert, with a tumbleweed crossing the landscape every so often. I found this image strangely calming.
I didn’t sleep much that night, either, although I managed to get some shut-eye from around 3 – 6 AM for reasons that I do not know. I was nervous about the surgery—set for the following afternoon—and had no clue what to do with that energy. My mom stayed in the room overnight and slept on a cot, so I mostly listened her quiet snoring.
Three hours of sleep after two nights of almost no sleep was a definite improvement.
Surgery day! Until they prepped me to go into surgery around 12:45, there wasn’t much for me to do besides watch Luke Cage on Netflix and read one of my library books (artist Marina Abramovic’s memoir Walk Through Walls, which was aggressively okay). I was able to have a cup of ice chips in the morning, which was amazing.
The last thing I remember seeing was the anesthesiologist’s amazing hair, and then a huge light in the operating room.
I woke up and needed to pee more strongly than I ever have in my entire life. Instead of going with my first instinct and screaming I AM GOING TO PEE ALL OVER MYSELF RIGHT NOW, I politely asked if someone could help me go to the bathroom. A hand slid a bedpan under my buttocks. I wondered if I had embarrassed myself post-surgery in any way, possibly by complimenting the anesthesiologist’s hair. No one in the recovery room/lineup/wherever they stash people coming out of surgery mentioned it, so I figured it was best not to ask.
Barely five minutes went by, and I needed to pee AGAIN. Another hand slid a bedpan under me. I suddenly missed the feeling of sitting on the toilet.
I was wheeled back to my room, finally, and after a few hours, I was told that I could have ice chips again (!) since the pancreatitis had finally gone away.
I swallowed my ice chips very slowly. I watched some more episodes of Luke Cage on Netflix. My stomach and ribs ached a bit. Not knowing what else to do, I took a few photos of the surgical area, which was purple and red and absolutely disgusting, so of course I had to photograph it. My brother, Joanna, and my parents came over to hang out for a bit—which, AGAIN, I barely remember.
Later, I got to have some food; this is best left un-described, I think, because hospital food is the worst.
I slept, finally.
I woke up the next day and realized that my hair was unbearably greasy. I’d been trying to “wash” my hair with splashes of water from my room’s sink the last few days, but it didn’t work. By day two of my stay, it felt like I was wearing a dirty wig that somebody tossed out of a car window on a busy freeway.
There was good news on the horizon, finally! I was able to go home, finally, around 4 PM, after four and a half days in the hospital.
The CNAs had provided me with large body wipe sort of things during my five-day stay at the hospital, but as I discovered in short order, a sponge bath is no substitute for a shower. The first shower I took after coming home from the hospital is definitely in my “top 5 showers” list, even though I discovered bits of a wet lint-like substance on my skin while taking that shower, which made whole experience feel vaguely Cronenbergian.
I had just had an organ taken out of my body. If I had to choose two words for the whole experience, I would go with “vaguely Cronenbergian.” My belly scars healed within a few weeks—currently, they exist as little dots of pink and white scar tissue around the incision sites.
The whole thing was very bizarre, and parts of it made me wish that I could go the rest of my existence without having to go to the hospital as a patient ever again.
I don’t think that is going to happen.
When my mom got her gallbladder removed in the 80’s she kept the marble-sized stones (her surgeon was aghast at the request, but complied) in a pill bottle on our mantle as a souvenir and conversation starter for first time dinner guests. Did you get to keep you gallstones? Also glad to see you made it through the surgery okay.
[…] The only time I can really say that my pain level has ever been “almost nonexistent” was when I was hospitalized for pancreatitis and got Dilaudid for the pain. This is not an experience I’d ever want to repeat, but I will say […]