Diagnosed with gallstones: Changing my diet didn’t help (at first)

Following my diagnosis in mid-November, I changed my diet pretty drastically. I did a lot of research on the Interwebs and talked with a friend who had also been diagnosed with gallstones. She had met with a surgeon and was considering surgery, but her symptoms went away and never came back. She drank a lot of apple juice, which sounded like a good idea to me.

My symptoms continued to wax and wane. During one of my first days at work, my boss took me out to lunch. I ordered a pasta dish and forgot to ask if it was prepared with butter or olive oil. Given the discomfort I felt afterwards, my guess is that it was prepared with butter. I was able to finish the day at work, but felt frustrated with myself and this new condition that I was living with. I was still confident that I would come out on top, or maybe I was just in denial.

I cancelled Thanksgiving Day plans because of this lunch incident and because I didn’t want to be *that* person who asked: What is this made with (when looking at every dish)? I even had a great idea for a gluten-free dessert, which I ended up making and which wasn’t very tasty. Sigh.

I drank apple cider vinegar and read about liver flushes that you could do by at first fasting, or eating apples, and then drinking olive oil mixed with citrus (typically lemon juice). That didn’t sound appealing, quite honestly. I tried turmeric and milk thistle. I wasn’t eating any red meat or fried foods, and cut back on high-fat dairy, including cream in my coffee.

The weekend of December 7, things seemed to get worse. I didn’t sleep very well on Friday night, and was uncomfortable on Saturday. I was supposed to go to a concert that night, but couldn’t fathom sitting in a chair all evening (the concert was in a cathedral). I was bummed – two of my favorite musicians in Seattle (Grant Olsen, Sera Cahoone) were playing, and I bailed and went to sleep early. The whites of my eyes starting turning orange-ish. I decided this was happening because I had been drinking a lot of carrot juice.  The juice was supposed to help, but if it was turning me orange, perhaps I should back off.

By Monday morning, December 9, the pain had subsided, but I knew that something was wrong. My eyes were not back to a normal color and I didn’t feel well or like myself. I headed to work that day knowing I’d let my boss know that I needed to go to the doctor’s office. It was only the start of the second full week at my new job, and I felt nervous about having that conversation. Thank goodness my insurance had kicked in at the beginning of the month.

When I went to her office and said I wasn’t feeling well, she at first thought I had caught the bug going around the office. Then, she looked more closely and realized I had a different sort of sickness. I expressed my fears about it being only my second week on the job. “I can tell you’re not the type of person to take advantage of sick days,” she said, encouraging me to leave immediately and to visit the campus health center. I asked her to tell our then-director that I was leaving, because he had wanted to introduce me to someone at a meeting that morning. “Is she okay?” he asked her. “No, she is not okay,” my boss said.

At Hall Health, I didn’t have to wait too terribly long, even though I was a walk-in. Dr. Vinopal diagnosed me with jaundice pretty quickly. When she pointed out how discolored the skin on my stomach was, I was shocked. The lighting in my condo is pretty bad but, still, how could I have missed that?

She said she thought I might have to be admitted to the hospital and asked someone on her team to schedule an ultrasound appointment for me, immediately. They did some blood work, too. Dr. Vinopal talked about the possibility of pancreatitis. I was scared about damage to my other organs, after ignoring warning signs all weekend. I began to cry.

Several hours later, I had the ultrasound. My boss met me at the appointment, knowing that I was scared and also because I had burst into tears when talking with her as well. I’d never ever been this sick before. And even though I had worked in hospital media relations and communications, it felt odd and scary being on the other side, being the patient, for the first time in my life.

The radiology tech asked me if I was in pain during the exam. I said that I wasn’t in any pain. “Should I be in pain?” I asked, based on whatever she might be seeing? She didn’t really respond to my question, since she couldn’t tell me what she was seeing.

She left the room to consult with the radiologist, who was then going to call Dr. Vinopal. When I spoke with her a little while later, she confirmed that I needed to be admitted to the hospital today. As luck would have it, despite this not-great news, Dr. David Flum was the surgeon on call that week. I’d worked with him quite a bit when I was at UW Medicine and he is renowned for (you guessed it) his work and research on gall bladder surgery.

I was admitted to the hospital on Monday, December 9, at 3:30 p.m. My boss drove me home to pick up my toothbrush and some other basics. She waited with me until I was checked into a room. My first hospital stay ever had begun.

Next up:  I’ll share details from my hospital stay and the ERCP (Endoscopic Retrograde Cholangiopancreatography) procedure that I had. My surgery date has been set: Tuesday, May 27.


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