Thinking About Your Gallbladder Right Now? Thought Not.

Editor’s Note: Nellie Sabin has graced us once again with a compelling and personal account of one of her health and wellness experiences. Sabin works as a freelance writer and editor who has published ten nonfiction books on a variety subjects. Read more of her musings and contact her at nelliesabin.tumblr.com

Gallbladder problems can cause indigestion or abdominal pain.

In 57 years, I never thought once about my gallbladder. But I think I should have.
I knew only two people who had gallbladder surgery. The first was a heavy-set teacher at my child’s school who disappeared for a couple of weeks. When he returned, he laughed and said he’d eaten too many sausages and peppers at a picnic. I didn’t know what to make of that story, since eating a mountain of sausages and peppers would put me in the hospital with or without a gallbladder.

The second was a skinny friend of mine, named Donna, who kept having terrible stomach pains on and off. She finally connected the pain to eating fatty foods, but her doctor refused to take her complaints seriously – maybe because she didn’t include enough drama, or maybe because of the mistaken stereotype that gallbladder trouble only affects fat people. So Donna cooked up a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese®, ate the whole thing, provoked a painful gall bladder attack, and finally got her doctor’s attention. She, too, had surgery, but I never heard much about the details.

A few months ago after lunch – which consisted of crackers, some cashew butter, and an apple – I got a stomachache. By evening it was the worst stomachache I’d ever had in my life. Pepto Bismol® had no effect at all. While my husband slept like a rock, I spent the night pacing, sitting on the edge of the bed, visiting the bathroom, and occasionally trying to lie down. Nothing helped the pain, no position felt comfortable, and no amount of moaning and groaning woke up my husband. I felt quite resentful that he slept so soundly — but he didn’t cause my stomachache.

By six o’clock in the morning the dog whined to go out, and that woke him up. I was pretty sure I could keep toughing out the pain, but he persuaded me that I needed to go to the emergency room.

And he was right.

Because I came in under my own power, and not in an ambulance, the triage nurse cross-examined before I could go into the ER. She seemed rather confused, and I had no patience for delays. She asked if I brought a list of all the medications I took. I explained all my prescriptions precisely, but for some reason she made numerous errors in her summary – which unfortunately got passed along from there to everyone else who saw me at the hospital. The mistakes never did get completely straightened out. (Note to readers: make a list, now!)

Finally they moved me to an examining room, where I lay with difficulty on a narrow bed, and my husband sat sleepily in a chair. It turns out we arrived exactly when the night doctors’ shift ended, and the morning doctors’ shift began, so all the available doctors were in a meeting discussing the night’s patients. (Note to readers: don’t go to the ER near 7:00 AM.)

A nurse came to take blood samples and insert an IV. She failed to thread the needle into the vein in my hand. She started over. Really.

Eventually the emergency room physician arrived, bright and energetic and ready for new, unpredictable day. He whipped out a bedside ultrasound wand, jammed it forcefully under my ribs on the right side where it hurt the most, and said, “It looks like you have gallstones.”
Gallstones? Really? I have already suffered through Cushing’s disease and cancer, and now it turns out I have gallstones? How long had that been going on?

After more waiting, they wheeled me upstairs for an official sonogram of my gallbladder. The process bore no resemblance to the process involved in a pregnancy ultrasound. It took a long time and it hurt.  It turns out, the liver covers the gallbladder, and somewhat obstructs the view, so getting a good image of it requires that the ultrasound tech repeatedly stab the area with the ultrasound wand. The verdict, I later learned, indicated I had an enlarged, inflamed gallbladder with gallstones and a blocked bile duct. The gallbladder is usually the size of a pear, but mine was more like an eggplant, and it was mad.

Back in the emergency room, they said I could either go home and schedule surgery soon, or I could stay at the hospital and have my gallbladder removed in a few hours. Although my limited choices astonished me, I saw no advantage in waiting. I gave them the nod, setting the wheels in motion!

The surgeon on call stopped by for a moment. He was tall, grey-haired, and authoritative. I asked about the size of the post-surgical scar. He said nothing, but held his hands about five feet apart, which my husband found hilarious. The doctor gave me some reading material about laparoscopic gallbladder surgery that included two pages of possible risks.

Later I would find out that John Murtha, the distinguished Marine and Congressman from Pennsylvania, died from laparoscopic gallbladder surgery because his surgeon nicked his intestines and he developed a fatal infection. But the benefits of the laparoscopic procedure, when done correctly, include having only four small incisions and a shorter recovery time. The doctor warned me that if he could not complete the surgery laparoscopically, he would have to perform it the old-fashioned way — with a larger abdominal incision.

By 3:00 pm that afternoon, I lay in the operating room, having my arms outstretched and a gas mask placed over my face. About an hour later, they moved me to the recovery room, where I would stay for the next five hours, trying to reassemble the pieces of my brain and get the pain under control. By evening, a nurse transported me to my hospital room, with plastic cuffs inflating and deflating on both legs, an IV dripping into my right arm, and a drain shaped like a grenade sticking out of my right side. The surgeon had performed a miracle and removed my gallbladder through a two-inch incision above my bellybutton. Amazing!

It turns out that for years I had experienced symptoms, like low-level nausea that I never connected to gallstones. Sometimes I suffered from wicked bouts of indigestion for no apparent reason. Recently, I had developed every symptom in the book, from itchy skin to abdominal pain, but I still didn’t realize I had a gallbladder problem.

Now that the stupid thing is gone, I can eat everything I ate before (don’t believe all that information online about the need to avoid any food that contains fat). My skin looks better than it has in years. And amazingly, my headaches, alertness, and energy level all improved, too.

So if you are troubled by any odd, off-and-on symptoms like these, ask your doctor about your gallbladder. If I’d known removing mine would make me feel so much better, I would have done it years ago!

Image credit: womansday dot com,

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  1. #1 by amy shoultz, phd on January 30, 2012 - 7:54 PM

    Nellie~can’t believe that am saying this but I *really* enjoyed this post about gallstones…of all things! Not only is your piece highly informative & educational, your wry sense of humor (& color commentary throughout) had me hooked from start-to-finish. And, of course, now my inner hypochondriac is convinced I’ve been stricken with gallstones. Thanks for that*-)

    • #2 by Nellie on January 31, 2012 - 3:20 AM

      Sorry, Amy, I should have hit Reply!

  2. #3 by Nellie on January 30, 2012 - 8:43 PM

    Hi Amy, sorry about that! You better stay away from Merck’s Manual LOL

    Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m never really sure if anybody reads my articles so hearing from you is a thrill!

    Gallstones are not actually very common, but if you are getting stomach aches for no reason, and occasionally feel like your stomach was just tied in a knot, definitely go check it out. I feel 200% better now!

    Thanks so much for your encouragement!
    – Nellie

  3. #4 by Parenting Extra }|{ on February 1, 2012 - 9:53 AM

    Wow, definitely felt your pain there.

    I had a similar experience last year (albeit without the compounded medical incompetence).

    It took months to diagnose that the gallbladder was the problem, and the pain was unbearable – especially at night.

    In the end I had it removed (keyhole, yay!) and haven’t had a problem since!

    ~Clive
    @ParentingExtra

    • #5 by Nellie on February 1, 2012 - 9:33 PM

      Hi Clive,

      I’m glad you finally got it figured out! It’s too bad it took so long for you to get a diagnosis. It seems like constant PAIN should have been a hint!

      I can’t explain all the weird extra symptoms that went along with my gallstones, but I definitely experienced mental fog and other seemingly unrelated problems. They went away as soon as the damn thing was removed.

      Hope you experience great health from now on!
      – Nellie

  4. #6 by Claudia on February 2, 2012 - 7:40 PM

    Nellie,
    What a wonderful writer you are…humorous and informative! And with a pretty dry subject matter…gallbladders! I was actually engrossed in your story…AND grateful that you shared so that others may benefit from your experience…right down to the advise not to go to the ER at the change of shift.
    Thanks Nellie and I hope good health continues to grace your life
    Claudia

    • #7 by Samantha Gluck on February 4, 2012 - 8:51 PM

      Hi Claudia,

      Isn’t Miss Nellie simply the BOMB? She can take a topic like this and tell her story so artfully that it becomes a compelling, interesting, and educational story. Thank you for sharing and visiting.

      Samantha

  5. #8 by Laura@Catharsis on February 7, 2012 - 1:38 AM

    Oh my gosh, Nellie, this is crazy! I feel like I might have gallbladder issues, but I could be making it up. I do have these symptoms on and off, but I also have small children and a full-time job, which could account for a lot. I am so glad you found the problem before it was too late. I’m also very sorry you had to suffer through the unbearable pain all night, and even though it wasn’t your husband’s fault that he was sleeping peacefully while you were suffering, I can understand the desire to get mad at him. I used to be furious with my husband when he slept soundly during my pregnancies and I heaved myself to the bathroom every 20 minutes, fought the onslaught of kicks to my ribs, and felt certain my lady parts were going to burst at any moment. This is a great piece and a great awareness tool. Thank you for sharing your experience!

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