Life after gallbladder surgery

Gallstones that resemble teeth removed during my surgery.

It’s been six months since I had my gall bladder removed and almost one year since the attacks started that led to me being hospitalized with jaundice, and learning about my gall bladder issues.

I’m thankful today for good health, and I’m specifically reminded of last year’s health issues during Thanksgiving. The weeks leading up to it last year left me afraid to eat almost anything (juicing, that’s the solution!) and cancelling my plans to attend a friend’s gathering because I didn’t want to be that person who asked if this dish or that dish was prepared with butter. (It’s Thanksgiving—what isn’t prepared with butter?) I made a vegan dessert—thinking that might solve my problems—that didn’t taste very good and ended up throwing most of it away.

I’m still paying my bills from the procedure and even the hospital stay prior to that (nearly one year ago). $400 was added on to my list of payments recently, the co-insurance portion of a $19,450.92 charge that had been lingering since last December. Insurance paid $11,155.20 and $7,859.72 was written off or assumed by UW Medicine.

Before my surgery, more than one person told me that I would “never be the same” if I had it removed. Luckily for me, I do feel the same, minus the pain and sleepless nights I experienced following the attacks and minus the fear that something really bad might happen to my other organs. I sometimes have a little phantom pain in the area where my gall bladder was.

As it turns out, I had something called Mirizzi’s syndrome, a rare condition that affects one percent of people who have issues with their gall bladders. As my surgeon explained, it’s like the stones had formed a cement wall on one side of the gall bladder. With that new information, I now think that last year, in early December, part of this wall fell off and created the blockage in my bile duct. The docs at that time had said they’d never seen stones clumped together in the way that they were. Apparently they had never seen Mirizzi’s syndrome.

My surgeon, Dr. David Flum, said he called in a liver surgeon to make sure he made all the right moves and cuts during the surgery. Dr. Flum has performed lots of these surgeries, but this was the first time he had seen Mirizzi’s, too.

I was grateful for this extra care, and the fact that I was able to have this procedure done using laparascopic surgery. It’s pretty amazing – I have several small scars on my torso that are less than the size of the nail on my pinky finger.

The surgeons removed my gall bladder via a cut near my belly button. When I took the gauze and bandage off of that area, my belly button seemed stretched out. But it’s slowly come back to its smaller shape, as the doctors promised it would.

Some people I talked with prior to surgery had advised against it, suggesting that I instead do a gall bladder cleanse. I looked up some of the recipes online and even subscribed to a site that provided ongoing advice. I talked with friends about the pluses and minuses.

The cleanses involve drinking a combination of olive oil and lemon juice, and trying to ensure that those liquids spend some time in your body before being, well, dispelled. People share their experience on YouTube and show the “evidence,” supposedly gall stones that have been removed from their body, thanks to the cleanse.

Having experienced attacks brought on by gallstones that were expelled from my gall bladder and, subsequently, having the stones create a blockage inside my body, I couldn’t see how the cleanses actually worked.  How did this olive oil procedure somehow penetrate the gall bladder, forcing stones safely out of the body? I just don’t believe it. If that did actually happen, there would be a lot more people in the hospital in need of surgery and treatment related to the gallstones.

My surgery started late on the day of my procedure last May, at around 1 p.m. My friend, Lauren, had offered to drive me home after the outpatient procedure. The surgery took longer than expected, probably due to the discovery of the Mirizzi’s syndrome. I was pretty woozy from the anesthesia, and the hospital staff said that I either needed to spend the night in the hospital or stay with a friend.

Lauren immediately said that I could stay with her. I’m forever grateful for that and her generosity. She was such a kind and considerate caregiver. We stopped briefly at my place so that I could pick up a few things I might need overnight. I held her arm while I walked, still not feeling very balanced or steady on my feet.

She set me up in the guest bedroom and, taking extra precautions, she put a yoga mat on the floor of the bathroom, just in case I was unsteady enough that I took a spill. That didn’t happen, but I appreciated the gesture.

I ate a little bit of applesauce even though I didn’t feel hungry. I had been given some pain medication while in recovery at the hospital. It wasn’t hard to fall asleep that night. Lauren said she’d check on me during the night to make sure all was okay.

The next day, I felt pretty good but sore in my abdominal area, as if I’d done about 1,000 sit-ups the day before. In order to sit up, I rolled to my side first and then pushed myself up. By mid-morning, I felt strong enough to take a short walk outside. I wanted to get flowers for Lauren and also wanted to eat something. I opted for soup, which seemed like a safe choice.

I went home later that afternoon. Lauren will not be pleased to hear that I took the bus home. But it was a short ride and I honestly hate paying for cabs when I don’t need to. The sun was out and the warmth from the rays felt good.

I was off work the rest of the week, and didn’t have restrictions apart from not driving until I was off pain medication, and not working out until I was cleared to do that during my follow-up visit.

Recovery after this type of surgery was incredibly easy. It helped that in general, I am in good health and exercise regularly. I started walking almost immediately, including the two-mile round trip from home to work and back. I was cleared to go back to working out at my follow-up appointment, though I must admit I took a few extra weeks off, just because.

I asked Dr. Flum how things looked inside and if my other organs were in good shape. He said yes, and that I wouldn’t be seeing him again, which was good news. I also let him know that if there was anything that I could do from the patient perspective, including talking with other patients who had gall bladder issues, to just let me know.

He contacted me several months later through email, and asked if I would be interested in serving on a patient advisory board connected with an appendicitis study. I said yes, and attended a symposium earlier this month, hearing from researchers and patients involved in more patient-centric research, so that outcomes all around are improved. My next meeting with the team is next week, as we’re preparing a more complete proposal in hopes of landing a grant to carry out the work.

I remain grateful for many things, including that:

  • Dr. Flum was on call last December when I developed jaundice and had to be admitted to the hospital.
  • I had an incredibly understanding boss, even though I’d only been on the job a few weeks at that time.
  • I listened to Dr. Flum and had my gall bladder removed.
  • Lauren offered to drive me home after my surgery, and ended up providing more than I can ever thank her for.
  • I have health insurance. I can’t imagine having a serious health condition like this and not having insurance coverage. I know that charity care exists at most hospitals, but also that many patients end up paying off big bills.

I’m hopeful that my health issues are behind me. In addition to this gall bladder nonsense, I was diagnosed with shingles in August. Luckily, the shingles weren’t painful, only itchy and uncomfortable. And I don’t seem to have any residual effect. Some people develop neuropathy, which is like a phantom pain, following shingles.

2014 seemed to be the year of big health issues for me. But it also brought a lot of good things in the form of my new job (technically I started in November, but it was close enough to the year’s end).

Here’s to a healthy 2015 filled with yoga, ballet and music.

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