“I just associate gallbladder problems with old gray-haired German women wearing stockings and pumps,” I told Beau as we drove home from the ER at 5 a.m.
Turns out — as my mom explained to me when we got back to our house, where she’d been babysitting our kids — that old German woman I’m reminded of is my maternal great-grandmother Nana, who struggled with gallbladder issues… as did my maternal grandfather Edwin.
As do I, apparently.
It all started at 7 o’clock Thursday morning — although, now that I’m more familiar with the symptoms, I wonder if I hadn’t been experiencing them off and on for some time. First came sharp pains shooting through my abdomen to my tailbone. I called My Sister the Physician and she advised me to eat fruit. I did that, and took three Aleve, and continued through the day without much trouble. I even made lunch for the cowboy crew.
Come evening, though, I could hardly stand up straight. My belly was distended and sore to the touch and I had an ache on my right side. Beau was in for the night, so he wrangled the kids as I took a bath to relax. My ribs and my right shoulder started to hurt while I was in the bath, so I worried that my mind was displacing the pain somehow and also that I was turning into just another hypochondriac. What in the world could shoulder pain have to do with belly pain?
We got the kids to bed and climbed in ourselves at about 9:30 p.m. Were I eight months pregnant (which I felt like I was), I would’ve figured I was in labor. I told Beau I’d head to the health clinic in the morning if I didn’t feel better. I very much hoped to sleep through the night and wake up feeling fine.
I did sleep, until 11, when I staggered out of bed and to the bathroom. My heart felt like it was going to explode and there was a whistling in my ears… and I later woke up lying on my stomach on the bathroom floor. How I’d gotten there I didn’t know, but I did know I liked the feel of the cool bathroom floor on my hot belly and so considered going back to sleep there. I determined I had better not die in the bathroom like Elvis, though, so limped back to the bedroom to wake Beau. “We have to go to the hospital,” I told his sleeping figure. “BEAU! Wake up. You have to take me to the hospital.”
As he prepared himself for the 70-mile drive after a short hour and a half of sleep, I called my mom to come stay with the kids and then called My Sister the Physician to wake her from her own sleep and whine in her ear as I attempted to dress myself without bending over, because bending over was pretty much out of the question. She and I determined that I should head to the Miles City ER; though our home is equidistant from the Billings ER, I was afraid of getting lost in the horror-story shuffle of the larger facility in Billings… and I figured Miles City could always fly me to Billings in a helicopter if it turned out to be necessary.
I curled up on my left side in the seat as Beau drove through the dark. I suppose I was a little melodramatic as we covered the miles to Miles. Thank goodness my heart had resumed a normal pace and the whistling in my ears had ceased, so death didn’t seem quite so imminent as it had. Still, with tears in my eyes, I told him to tell the kids that I loved them. I insisted he pull over at the only rest area on the way. Then, as we got closer to Miles City, I decided that maybe we should just turn around and go home because clearly it was all a digestive issue and I was only getting old and just being a big sissy about it.
Nonetheless, I hunched into the ER wearing the most unflattering gray sweats you’ve ever seen, no bra, and my husband’s camouflage crocs. I actually heard the man behind the counter mutter to the male nurse, “Are we having fun yet?”
I was the only patient in the ER that night except for a girl in her late teens who, I saw as we went by her door, was sprawled angrily on her gurney. The entire ER was staffed by men. My nurse was a very large fellow from Oklahoma named Sam, and he impressed me with his efficiency. We talked about Red Dirt Music. My doctor was dressed all in black and had a nervous tic. I wondered if he was going for a Johnny Cash look. He knew My Sister the Physician, of course, and remembered well my dad’s emergency this past June. We recounted the details of Dad’s incident as the men tested urine, drew blood, and prodded my belly. Though they offered morphine I refused it. (I didn’t think things were that bad yet.) I admitted that the last thing I’d consumed was coffee with heavy cream at about 4 p.m. I was very relieved to find out that shoulder pain is associated with gallbladder problems; that made me feel less crazy.
The wee hours of the morning passed by as Beau sat beside my gurney in a tiny exam room. He read a copy of Western Horseman and I read a copy of Angels Among Us. The ultrasound tech on call had to drive into town in order to ultrasound my belly, and she seemed somewhat perturbed that my problem had gotten her out of bed. After she finished, the doctor came in to explain her findings. She had noticed a large stone in my gallbladder, but the gallbladder itself didn’t appear to be irritated or infected, so he didn’t recommend emergency surgery. Perhaps I had passed another stone earlier on my journey to my bathroom floor. There was no way to know. Dr. Johnny Cash advised me to follow up with a surgeon if problems persisted. I asked him about foods to avoid, and as physicians often are, he was leery to commit to any one theory. Some people say fats irritate gallbladders, he said, but other people say no. Some people say spicy foods irritate gallbladders, he said, but other people say no.
Beau and I waved goodbye to the ER at about 4 a.m. with no conclusive results in our possession — though, I remember, the doctor had warned us that people who go to the ER with stomach pain usually don’t leave with conclusive results. I was holding tightly to the gallbladder idea, though, because I wanted to be able to tell everybody that I had a real problem so it’d be clear that it wasn’t all a figment of my imagination. Beau drove us home; we did stop at the Colstrip interchange so he could nap in the car for a half hour or so… and we made it back to the ranch by the time the cowboy crew was pulling out a little after 6 o’clock. Not much had changed during our journey into the Emergency Room Twilight Zone. My mom reported that our angry baby had been up most of the night. She also filled me in on my genetic tendency toward gallbladder trouble: my great-grandmother suffered gallstones, and my grandfather Edwin was actually in the hospital following gallbladder surgery when he passed away.
So that’s good news.
The last couple days I’ve been lying on the couch as much as my three littles will allow. My mom has been helping — she made a very honest attempt at sorting through my laundry disaster, then took my two older kids to an all-afternoon basketball game, then made and delivered the cookie bars I was supposed to contribute to a funeral dinner in town. Her help has given me a little time to inch into the chair in front of my computer (my stomach muscles are still sore to the touch but getting better all the time) to research my problem. With the help of webmd.com and mayoclinic.org I’ve discerned that my symptoms seem to be pretty classic for gallbladder issues, that the gallbladder is in charge of releasing digestive juices and bile into the small intestine, that gallstones develop when the gallbladder isn’t working as well as it should, that many people develop and pass gallstones in their life and never know it, and that gallstones can range in sizes up to golf ball. Diets high in fat and cholesterol and low in fiber contribute to gallbladder flare-ups. If my symptoms are recurrent and troublesome, the helpful people online tell me, a surgeon will probably recommend removing my gallbladder.
Once again, I am thankful for modern medicine. Can you imagine living just 200 years ago with a bad gallbladder? I always wonder out loud how people even survived back then. Beau always responds, Most of them didn’t.
Two more things: In the last couple days I have heard through the grapevine of many other young women who’ve experienced gallbladder issues, which has alleviated my fear that I am aging into an old gray-haired German woman who ought to be wearing stockings and pumps. Thank you, fellow gallbladder-issue-sufferers.
Also… I forgot what I was going to say. But that’s what happens when you don’t sleep.
Oh, right. I wanted to tell you that it took me two days to watch an hour-long presentation online which promised to reveal the real secret of life, i.e. the THREE FOODS EVERY PERSON SHOULD AVOID and FOUR NATURAL DIGESTIVE AIDS YOU NEED IN YOUR BODY. I’m fairly interested in nutrition anyhow and so watched with interest as a trendy M.D. from L.A. pontificated on her recommendations for digestive wellness and weight loss. She dragged the whole process out as long possible. I kept thinking, Just get with it! Just give me the tips! I want to know the four things! At the end of the presentation, of course, it turned out that this nice lady doctor was selling her own product — a pill called BioX4 which contains her four recommended digestive aids (spoiler alert: I’m going to tell you what the digestive aids are so you don’t have to be on the edge of your seat through her entire and painfully long online presentation. They are 1) the digestive enzymes amylase, bromelain, and lipase; 2) green tea extract; 3) unique-strain and billion-colony probiotics; and 4) caralluma fibriata, an appetite-suppressing root from India). Lucky for us all, the good doctor has packaged appropriate amounts of all four of these wonderfully natural digestive aids in her easy-to-swallow pills. I see you can buy a bottle containing 90 of the pills for just $39.99 on Amazon. I have to admit it, I’m tempted. I mean, who doesn’t desire digestive wellness and weight loss in one little pill? And it’s all natural, right? Do you think she might send me a free bottle in exchange for my free promotion of her product on my well-read blog?
[By the way, the three foods to avoid, all of which are marketed as health food? Pre-sweetened yogurt (it contains exorbitant amounts of sugar and all the good bacteria that exists in homemade yogurt was killed through the pasteurization process anyhow); store-bought wheat bread (really not any better for you than white bread and brimming with preservatives); and packaged cereal bars (also brimming with preservatives and sugar and, even worse, corn syrup). Other problem foods which she mentioned should be avoided at all costs: diet soda, a carbohydrate called Olean that’s added to some brands of potato chips, and preservatives in general.]
There. I just summarized her presentation and saved you an hour. And maybe your life.
Before I sign off, the real news of the week is that 3-year-old Emi, our sweet middle child who disdains being the middle child, is the first Blake kid to lose a tooth. She is very proud to finally be the first at something.
Of course, she did have to suffer a nasty fall on the cement steps outside our house, drink silly juice and sing her way through a tooth-pulling in order to earn her title… but still. She’s officially the first.
Last Thursday Emi fell on the steps and broke a top front tooth. She was very tough about it, but it was clear that the tooth (a baby, not a permanent, thank goodness) was badly broken. The next morning I called our dentist in Miles City and told the secretary about the problem. “We live halfway between Miles City and Billings,” I reminded her, “so if you think the dentist will refer us on to Billings, I’d just as soon head there first thing.”
Oh no, the secretary insisted, the dentist in Miles City would need to see her. So I drove 70 miles east to Miles City.
Well… the dentist in Miles City looked at her for about 40 seconds before he announced that hers was a problem which he couldn’t handle in his office, and furthermore, he’d have to refer us to the pediatric dentist in Billings.
So, three days later, I drove 70 miles west to Billings. X-rays revealed that her tooth had a long vertical crack in it, as well as the horizontal crack I was suspicious of. She was lightly sedated before they numbed her up and pulled the tooth. We were out of there in no time, and I drove home with a slightly-drunk Emi alternating between wild laughing, intense whining (I thought we were gonna go to the plaaaaygrouuuuuund!), and frantic sobbing (But! *sniff* I really… wanted… *hiccup* popcornnnnn… aaaaaggggggggghhhhhhhhh!).
Emi seems to have grown up a lot through this tooth-pulling ordeal. I think part of it is that she’s gotten a lot of one-on-one attention from me as a result of it — thanks to Grandma, she and I made our journey to Miles City alone, just the two of us. I discovered on that trip that Emi has a LOT to say… it’s just that she never gets a chance to speak up when she’s sitting between her talkative older brother and her demanding baby sister. One-on-one time is something Emi really desires, and something I’ve been desiring to give her, but there just hasn’t been much time. But our little date to Miles City, and then all the attention from the dental professionals who helped us through the ordeal, and then the importance of The Title… and, well, all a sudden I’ve got a much more content, confident, and mature little girl on my hands.
So the tooth was a blessing in disguise. The gallbladder? I’m not sure yet.
© Tami Blake