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What it feels like to have a gallbladder attack

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I don’t even know where to start with this one. I wasn’t even going to blog about it because I’ve talked about it almost non-stop on social media. But now that I actually have a surgery date I guess I should tell the story. Plus, I’ve had a lot of people ask me, what does it feel like to have a gallbladder attack?

Two Sundays ago (Thanksgiving weekend) I was having a totally normal, kind of awesome day. I’d slept in a bit (yes, my body counts 7am as sleeping in these days), then made some homemade biscuits and had a delicious breakfast of a biscuit-egg-cheese sandwich. That filled me up so much that by 2pm, when the trouble started, I hadn’t eaten anything else. I definitely hadn’t showered or brushed my teeth. I was wearing the kind of ugly sweatpants and over-sized shirt that I only wear when I’m sure I won’t be leaving the house.

It started with some lower back pain that came on suddenly. I have that whole egg problem, and even though I’d made my sandwich with one of the expensive, farm-fresh eggs that are usually fine on my stomach, my first thought was that it was the egg. I felt a little nauseated too, so I went into the bathroom just in case. But the nausea passed in a minute and I walked back into the dining room.

All of a sudden there was a huge, stabbing pain in my stomach. I fell to the floor and started yelling for my husband. My son got there first and the look on his face as he called for his dad was something I’ll never forget.

For the next few minutes, I was just writhing on the floor, yelling “It hurts!” over and over. It felt like my guts were being ripped out. The pain was now all over my back and my abdomen and spreading to my chest.

I’d felt this once before. A few months before I’d woken up in the middle of the night with something very similar. It had lasted about two minutes, and I’d woken the entire house up screaming. But it had stopped just as I was about to ask my husband to call an ambulance. Between Facebook and Dr. Google I’d been pretty sure that it had been a gallstone attack, and I swore to myself that if it happened again I’d go to a doctor. I had no idea that the next time would be about ten times worse.

This time it had been at least a few minutes, though, and this wasn’t going away—it was getting worse. I told my husband to call an ambulance. I was getting really scared. I heard him on the phone telling them what was happening. He couldn’t remember how old I was. I think at that point he could barely remember his own name.

And then I couldn’t breathe.

I mean, obviously, I could breathe because with each shallow, gasping breath I yelped “I can’t breathe!” It was so hard to get any air in at all, but for some reason all I could think was that maybe my husband didn’t understand how bad I felt, and I needed to keep repeating it or he wouldn’t do anything (he understood, I just wasn’t thinking clearly; I’ve never seen him so worried in all of our years together).

By this point, I was sure I was dying. Of a heart attack, I guess? I told my husband to bring me some chewable aspirin and I chewed a couple. I asked why the ambulance wasn’t there yet. He called 911 back, or maybe he was still on the phone with them? I don’t know.

While he was on the phone Jake was rubbing my back and telling me repeatedly that it was going to be OK. I know he was trying to help, but just touching me made it worse, so I told him to stop. I think I barked it. I didn’t have the breath to be nice. Omer sent him outside to look for the ambulance.

When it finally got here I’m guessing it came with a fire truck also, because all of a sudden our downstairs was filled with people. The paramedics came back to the dining room and asked Omer if I was on any medication. He said no.

“What about that?” they asked.

“No, that’s sugar!” Omer said.

Sugarcubes in a prescription bottle

If I could have laughed I would have. My mom had just left the night before – she’d been here for Thanksgiving. She’d brought sugar cubes so that she could have a proper tea party with the kids. She’d put them in a prescription bottle so that they wouldn’t get crushed. The paramedics had thought they were drugs.

Somehow they got me up onto a chair with wheels and took me outside, where they lifted me onto a gurney. I’d had my eyes closed most of the time all of this was going on. I’m a bit like a toddler that way: I close my eyes to keep out the scary stuff. But I opened them for a few seconds when we got outside, and I saw Jake and Fiona sitting on the front steps. Or rather, I saw their legs. I didn’t look up. I didn’t want to see their worried faces. I didn’t want to know if they were crying.

I wanted to tell them that it would be OK, that I would be home soon, but I couldn’t find any words, except for the ones I was still pushing out every few seconds: “It hurts!” and “I can’t breath!”

I don’t know if there were any neighbors around trying to see what was going on. I closed my eyes again and kept them closed.

When we got into the ambulance we didn’t go anywhere. I was really panicking at this point. Were we not rushing to the hospital because it wasn’t serious, or because there was no hope? They were asking me questions and telling me that I had to try to be still so that they could get a blood pressure cuff around my arm, but the more still I was the more it hurt.

They put an oxygen mask on me, and I tried to breathe deeply. They asked me which hospital I wanted to go to, and I said NYU Downtown, where all of my doctors are (it isn’t called that anymore—I still can’t remember the correct name). But they couldn’t go into Manhattan, even though it’s really close, like five subway stops. We didn’t know where else to go. The few times we’d had to go to the ER they weren’t real emergencies and we’d driven ourselves to NYU Downtown. We told them to take us to the closest hospital.

Finally, we started moving—no sirens though. I tried to figure out if that meant anything. Wasn’t I worth sirens?

At first, being in a moving ambulance made things worse. Every bump shot pain through my body. But at some point during the ride, the pain started to go away. My breath returned to normal. I calmed down. I no longer felt like I was going to die. The attack had lasted about twenty excruciating minutes.

Shortly after getting to the hospital, while my husband was off showing them our insurance info, I had another attack. I felt so stupid lying there in a hallway screaming. It was echoing. But I couldn’t hold it in. Thankfully, this one was shorter, maybe a few minutes. I had two more attacks over the next half hour or so.

By the time I had the last attack I was in an ER bed, and between gasps I said to my husband, “Why is nobody helping me?” He went and got somebody, and she started an IV and gave me morphine. That felt wonderful. And if I had any more attacks, I didn’t feel them.

A doctor came and did a sonogram, but said my gallbladder wasn’t swollen. He said I would get a CT scan.

Then I waited. I realized I had no phone with me. That’s how you know I was in severe pain: I hadn’t asked Omer to grab my phone. I used his to text the kids, and I tried to assure them that I was OK, that whatever had been happening was over and I felt fine.

Bed 42 at the ER, with a monitor and some machines

The ER was an interesting place. From my bed, #42, I could see three beds across from me. On the left and right one were sleeping men. The man on the right was snoring really really loud. In the middle bed was a man wearing leg shackles who had a police escort.

I asked Omer to look up the reputation of the hospital. He started reading me Yelp reviews. They were fairly scary.

After a while, they said that all visitors had to leave the ER due to security concerns. Did it have something to do with the guy in the shackles? I have no idea. We figured this was a good time for Omer to go home and get me my phone and a few other things, and to make sure the kids weren’t too freaked out.

While he was gone they did my CT scan. When he got back they still weren’t letting visitors in. Finally, he was allowed in and we waited some more. We listened as someone a few beds down whom we couldn’t see yelled at all of the doctors and nurses to suck his dick. Then we waited some more.

Honestly, at that point, I didn’t want Omer there. I just wanted to read or try to take a nap (which turned out to be impossible thanks to Snory McSnorerson). I convinced him to go home to the kids so that I could rest.

After a couple more hours a surgeon came to talk to me about my CT scan. He said there was a giant gallstone that was causing all of the trouble. The gallbladder exists to release bile, which aids in the digestion of fatty foods. If you have gallstones, sometimes they can get in the way and get stuck, causing all sorts of pain and trouble. My incredibly fatty (and delicious) breakfast had set off the attack. He wanted to take my gallbladder out that night. I said OK. I never wanted to feel that pain ever again.

I called Omer and told him what was going on, and asked him to bring the kids down.

More tomorrow or Saturday, this is already long enough…But spoiler, I still have my gallbladder.

This is post #1 in a five-post series! Here’s the complete list:

Know somebody who’s having their gallbladder out? Get them a replacement! :-)

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