I had gall bladder surgery this month. It’s been a trying ordeal to say the least!
It was scheduled surgery to remove my gall bladder on Tuesday, August 6, 2011 because of obvious gall stones found in an ultrasound which matched my pain symptoms (a growing burning pain in my side and various other apparently related pains across the bottom of my rib cage.) Angela had hers out some 15-20 years ago and it’s been no big deal over the years for her. The doctor said that I’d arrive early on the morning of the surgery and leave the hospital the next day if all went well.
All did not go well, as you might have guessed.
I was not afraid of the surgery, but I certainly can’t say that I was relaxed and the surgery prep, while not really "trying" is certainly not relaxing either – more like annoying! My experience with the French health care system to date had included plenty of visits to our general practitioner, plus two endoscopies (I really hate those) to look into my stomach to see if there were ulcers, etc., plus some heart tests a few years ago when trying to diagnose various pains that in the end seem to be completely digestive in nature. This, however would be my first hospital stay and first surgery. I wondered if, when waking up from the anesthesia whether I’d be able to understand and/or speak French. That, thankfully, ended up being a non-issue. I’ve not had general anesthesia often (3 times?) but I don’t like waking up from it. No exception here, but not as big a deal as I had remembered. I was certainly glad however, when they took me out of the recovery room (with bright lights, noise and plenty of other patients all waking up) back to my room.
The doctor came by that evening and let me know that I’d not be leaving Wednesday but Thursday. Apparently the gall bladder was quite infected (it seems there is the same kind of danger as an infected appendix…so I’m glad it’s gone) and had somehow become covered by the liver so that its extraction was not as straight-forward as would have been hoped. So that was my first bummer of the experience…but not my last!
Getting home on Thursday evening was so nice. I was so glad to be home and Angela was such a good nurse. Friday I was already feeling better. Saturday I felt kind of blah…less perky.
Saturday night, in the middle of the night (of course), I started getting a pain under my sternum…sort of a burning, dull pain that just kept growing. At one point, the pain made me nauseous but I only had dry heaves…nothing to get rid of. Finally it was a question of getting help, but boy did I NOT want to go back to the hospital. There wasn’t much choice though. The hospital of the surgery was in Colmar, a half an hour drive that Angela did NOT feel confident making. There is a local hospital in Guebwiller but even then, in the middle of the night, Angela preferred that we call an ambulance. So we did. Then in the ambulance, they asked me which hospital I wanted to go to. I said Colmar simply because I knew there was a chance that this was related to the surgery and I’d end up back there anyway. They were going to honor that when their superiors said that I should go to Guebwiller to get an electrocardiogram as soon as possible to rule out heart issues, so to Guebwiller I went.
Thus began 12 hours of nearly pure agony and 5 difficult days (total) in 2 hospitals with 2 ambulance rides (the billing for which still remains a significant question). The pain came and went twice and then it pretty much stayed…sort of migrating around my chest and abdomen and left shoulder. No pain killers were making a significant dent. Finally, somewhere Sunday afternoon, they either found a good pain killer or it subsided pretty much for good. By this time I’d been in 2 different emergency rooms, had lots of blood drawn, had full chest x-rays, was given an MRI (or some kind of really fancy scan) and of course couldn’t eat or drink diddly squat! (one of the BIG issues with digestive medicine!) The time in the emergency rooms was particularly annoying as my pain was acute, but sufficiently vague that no one could give me good answers to my questions (and I imagine they felt the same about me!) and due to the recent operation and the narrow emergency room "beds", I certainly wasn’t comfortable in any sense of the word.
Once the pain was gone, I was moved to the standard post-operative ward where I was basically under observation. This meant that I got the standard nurse and nurses’ aide visits, plus blood tests, plus a second MRI, but not much in the way of contact with doctors who could tell me what was going on. What’s more, the doctor who operated on me, who would normally have been "in charge" of me upon my reentry into the hospital, had gone on vacation just after I was released from the hospital the first time. So I felt somewhat abandoned in the whole process. With being passed from doctor to doctor, there were certainly lapses in communication. I could tell 10 different personnel that I was not in pain, which answered their question for their purposes, but somehow that didn’t get back to the doctor such that when I asked if I could have anything to drink, she said that as long as I was in pain I couldn’t!
Because the pain had been so significant, I wanted to know what it was…what had caused it. When I tried to have a conversation about it with a doctor, she literally interrupted me twice with "Stop!" and wouldn’t let me finish my question as I tried to find out what caused my pain. Apparently there are too many things that could have been the source of my pain. I finally, after thinking about it and trying to forgive the doctor over and over in my heart, I came to the conclusion that once the pain is determined to not be life threatening (they rule out certain things with tests) and once it’s been dealt with, the pain is no longer so important to the doctor; merely a trigger that got me back into the medical care system and indicated that something was not quite right. At this point, they operate more based on their tests to determine the cause of the problem than to search back and find a reason why there was acute pain. I think part of this, of course, is that all the personnel seem to be very busy and juggling many different patients at once.
Certainly one of the great frustrations that I had was the fact that often I was told that something would happen at a certain time or someone would come at a certain time and invariably it was much later, if at all, that it happened. I think in the end, as the stay in the hospital really began to wear on me, this became the most frustrating thing.
Were there any bright spots in all of this?
- The brightest spot by far was Angela. Her visits and phone calls were pure life to me when I felt alone, scared, frustrated, bored. She even found her way all by herself to the hospital finally. It was big trial for her as well, seeing her husband suffer (she saw some of the worst of it), be the communication channel for those asking about me, run the home, etc. Incredibly precious for me and incredibly draining on her. Even as I’m still getting over those two weeks, she is too.
- I also had a visit by my pastor and his wife who are very dear to us. Their brief visit and prayers meant a lot to me.
- The prayers of so many people. I knew I was supported. Very powerful.
- I re-read the Hobbit (hence the significance of this blog post’s title) and almost finished re-reading the Fellowship of the Ring. This was my sole weapon against boredom when I had begun to feel better but still had to stay in the hospital.
- He who finds a wife finds a good thing!
- Hospitals are made for abnormal interventions in the health of your body and not for long stays
- If hospital food is bad in general, the digestive surgery ward must be the lowest point!
- I’m not wired to care for people in this way – the untiring dedication of the staff that I saw who deal continually with people in the range of health from sick-to-just-getting-better is amazing!
- The French health care system is good – understaffed and overworked but full of dedicated and talented and, for the most part, friendly people (mostly the nurses) – even under stress
- The relationship between a doctor and his patient, especially in the hospital, is really complex! I was, in general, pretty frustrated with the doctors in the hospitals and the sort of "condescending" manner in which I was engaged. I can see with the steady stream (flood!) of patients that they see and treat how it would be very easy to focus on the problem-solving or the science or the technology of what they’re doing, but one can’t escape (especially the patient can’t) that they are dealing with a person, not simply a piece of biological life. I certainly didn’t feel that they were majoring on me, as a person, but on my liver and how I was functioning as an organism. Not that they were forgetting about me as a person, but it did not seem to be the priority. To their credit, they have an incredibly difficult job, and I wouldn’t want it!
- I don’t think I got enough post-operative counsel as to what I could expect and I’d certainly tell people who have abdominal surgery about the possibility of diverse, intense reactions.
- Emotionally, I’m not that strong and I don’t suffer well – both of which I’m not very proud of. That realization, along with the intensity of the physical pain I had have both left a mark on me that I’m currently working on with the Lord. I’m reading a lot of Psalms right now simply to cleanse my heart from fear and deep disappointment.