Sunday, March 5, 2017
It started about three and a half years ago: an episode of pain in my abdomen. Not terrible pain, but a gnawing pain in my upper abdomen, coupled with a queasy feeling.
Probably just my GERD acting up.
I took my Prilosec and an antacid and went on my way. The pain, however, stayed with me.
And the next day.
And the next.
This is annoying. It must be more than reflux. Maybe it’s my gallbladder?
One would think that I would have thought of gallbladder disease first. I see patients with gallstones, dysfunctional gallbladders, biliary dyskinesia and every other manifestation of biliary tract disease almost every day.
“Do you think you can do a quick sono on my gallbladder?” I asked Dr. L., a Radiologist friend. “I’ve been having epigastric pain for four days and I think it might be my gallbladder. That is, if you’re not too busy and the ultrasound is available.”
“Sure,” he answered.
“No doubt about it,” he remarked a few minutes later. “Those are gallstones. You should get an official ultrasound if you are going to have anything done.”
“Agreed,” I answered as I went on my way, still with pain, but at least with the knowledge of what was causing the problem.
The next day the pain was gone. I thought about having surgery at that time, but the pain stayed away and I didn’t think about it again until about five months ago.
Pain came back, but different than before.
It’s just my reflux. I’ll go back on my Prilosec.
The pain was a little sharper than previous, but only lasted about twenty minutes, at first.
The days went by and the pain lasted longer, still not terribly severe. It was always in my epigastrium, now lasted about an hour, almost always in the morning. And, it got better if I ate, particularly a large meal.
Definitely atypical for gallbladder.
Pain from gallstones typically is worse after eating, often occurs at night. Pain the morning, relieved by food was more consistent with peptic ulcer disease. Except, I’d had an Upper GI endoscopy only about a month before which did not reveal any ulcer.
Still, it was just an annoyance. And, I did have gallstones.
There was a change for the worse about two months ago. The pain I had was sharper, just to the right of the midline in the epigastrium and it persisted for about three hours. Then, it moved to my back for an hour before vanishing completely.
RUQ abdominal pain, lasting for hours, radiating to the back? No question. This is my gallbladder.
Still, I considered it an annoyance rather than something dire, something mandating immediate intervention. I occasionally took two Tylenol which helped, but otherwise went about my daily buisiness.
Pain, however, can wear you down. Particularly when it occurs every day and lasts for hours.
A daily cycle began.
I awoke each morning feeling well. After about an hour the pain would start in my upper abdomen, always in the middle. It would intensify for about an hour. By the time lunch rolled around it would start to diminish and disappeared by early evening.
You need to be a good patient.
I scheduled myself for an ultrasound of my gallbladder which confirmed a gallbladder packed full of stones. Then I went to see my partner, gave him the whole story and scheduled my surgery.
I guess there’s no way I can operate on myself? I’ll just have to trust my partner.
We scheduled the surgery for a Friday about ten days hence. The abdominal pain continued its daily pattern unabated. Some days the pain was sharper and lasted for 4-5 hours. It eventually moved to my back and then dissipated. Unlike so many of my patients who say the pain occurs at night, mine almost always started in the morning and disappeared completely by dinner time.
Three days before surgery the pain was less, merely a mild gnawing ache which only lasted a couple of hours. Two days before surgery I only felt a slight queasiness without real pain.
Maybe I don’t really need this surgery.
But, the day before surgery the real pain returned.
I guess it’s time.
The morning of surgery I did my usual thing: got up a little after five, fed the bird, fed the dogs, fed everybody but myself.
My wife and I parked the car at six twenty five and went into Bayshore Hospital’s Day Surgery.
“This way Dr. Gelber, we’ve got the VIP suite ready,” one of the nurses chimed.
“Room fifteen?” I answered. “Nothing very VIP about it.”
Back in the old Day surgery unit there was Room Twenty Two. It was larger and had its own bathroom. Now the only difference between room fifteen and the other rooms is that is separated from the other rooms by a hallway. I suppose it does afford a little more privacy.
I donned my hospital gown and my red, no skid socks and lay down on the stretcher to wait.
It wasn’t very long.
Two pre op nurses descended. One asked the usual questions: medical history, allergies, previous surgery, was I wanted by the FBI; you know, routine. The other started my IV. I pointed out my prominent “intern vein” which is at my right wrist and she started the IV like the pro she was.
There was another short wait until the anesthesiologist made an appearance. Unlike some other VIP’s I did not choose any particular anesthesiologist.
They all strike me as having equivalent levels of skill and I trust my patients with all of them.
Dr. M arrived and had me sign his consent. He didn’t give me a lot of explanation, rightly assuming that I was well versed in the anesthesia routine.
Dinah and JR, who would be circulating and scrubbing the case stopped in to say hello, asked if I had any questions or concerns and then left to make sure the room was ready.
Finally, the star of this endeavor, the surgeon, Dr. L., arrived, ten minutes early, a record for him. He smiled, introduced himself to Laura and said the surgery would take about an hour.
Finally time to start.
Dr. M made another appearance. He plugged an infusion of morphine into my IV, watched as the steady drip…drip…drip began and left.
Dinah reappeared and we were off. I remember being wheeled down the hall and the doors to the OR room, #8, I believe, opening and that was it.
I can only imagine being asked to move from stretcher to table. I don’t remember any of it. I suspect Dr. M said I might feel a little sting as the Propofol was injected, but I don’t know for sure. There certainly was a time out, maybe a joke or two at my expense and the ensuing surgery.
The next thing I do remember is being asked to breathe in the Recovery room. Laura was sitting at the bedside. The PACU nurse asked if I was having any pain.
A little, certainly not excruciating.
“Some,” I answered.
A half milligram of Dilaudid was pushed through the IV.
The little pain I had went away. Once again I forgot to breathe, so that every so often I would hear “take a deep breath.”
As a matter of fact the accumulated Morphine and Dilaudid worked very well.
I couldn’t stand up, couldn’t pee, couldn’t do much of anything for about four hours.
Finally, the narcotic effects started to wear off. With help, I made it to the bathroom, emptied my bladder and was deemed fit to go home, about six hours after the surgery had finished.
Of course, I still felt the effects of anesthesia and narcotics. I drank a little water and went to bed. Winston, one our dogs, a Miniature Schnauzer/Pomeranian mix made it his personal responsibility to oversee my recovery. He jumped on the bed, sniffed me all over, made sure I was breathing then lay down beside me.
No doubt he’s concerned about me, rather he’s concerned that if anything happens to me he won’t get fed.
After a couple of hours I took my first pain pill, an Ultracet which is relatively mild. After seeing how I reacted to Morphine and Dilaudid Dr. L rightly decided that 7.5 mg of hydrocodone might be too much for my delicate system and added the prescription for Ultracet.
The entire recovery was uneventful. I was able to eat without any problem. I took only two Ultracets. And I was back to work on Monday.
I looked at the photos from the surgery. The gallbladder didn’t look inflamed, my liver looked normal.
“You had a lot of little stones,” Dr. L. reported.
Makes sense, goes along with the pain I was having. Probably passed a little stone every day.
All in all it was, as best as I can tell, a boring operation. Perfectly mundane and boring. Which is the way surgery should be.
This cholecystectomy was my third experience with general anesthesia. First was a fractured fibula which required a closed reduction in seventh grade. Then shoulder surgery after my second year of medical school.
Undergoing surgery, besides the benefit of eliminating the annoying gallbladder pain, should help me empathize with my patients. I now can say to my patients that I know what you are experiencing, even if I never had to take anything stronger than Tylenol for my gallbladder pain. Same story after this surgery, except for two Ultracet.
And, it does underscore the truth that every patient, every illness is unique. We are all individuals and deserve to have our health care tailored to our personal needs. This fact is not evidence based and doesn’t fit into any standard protocol.
It does, however, lead to happy patients and good care.