On Thursday night, March 19, I had dinner with two dear friends. Friday morning, I took the dog for a run, and got some decent writing done. That evening, I met two other friends for a glass of wine, then had a lovely “date night” dinner with my husband. During those two days, I also got some quality time with my kids, chatted with my mom, and caught up with a few other friends over email and the phone. The long, seemingly relentless, New England winter was finally coming to an end, and things were looking up.
So when I awoke on Saturday morning, March 21, with a stomachache and vomiting, I assumed it was food poisoning or some sort of virus. One more little “storm.” But the pain lingered after the vomiting stopped, and by late Sunday afternoon, it’d really intensified. I told my husband I needed to get to the nearest emergency room.
After doing blood work and an ultrasound, the ER doctors felt extremely confident that the problem was my gall bladder. They admitted me to the hospital, saying I’d have one more test in the morning (a HIDA scan), and if their beliefs were confirmed, the gall bladder would come right out. With some luck, I’d be home Monday night.
Not what I’d expected, but it sounded fairly uncomplicated. Laparoscopic surgery and a brief recovery period. I went to sleep peacefully—protected from pain by medication.
The following morning, however, I was awakened quite early by the surgeon, who examined my belly and told me he wasn’t sure the problem was the gall bladder. In fact, he had a slight suspicion it was my appendix, or maybe something else. “Of course I can’t tell just by pressing on your stomach,” he said, “so let’s see how the test turns out.”
I admit I felt slightly aggravated. I wanted a simple answer and a simple solution.
When the test was complete, several doctors spoke with me, all of whom agreed that the gall bladder was the problem. Late in the afternoon, I was informed by my nurse that she’d soon be getting me ready for gall bladder surgery. At what time? Well, the surgeon was at another hospital, but soon.
My husband and I sat together, talking and joking on the phone with family and friends. Then we were told that the surgeon wanted one more test: this time a CT scan. Just to be sure. I should mention that I was on my third day of not eating (first there’d been the vomiting, then the lack of appetite, then fasting for tests and surgery) and now I’d need to drink barium sulfate and have a scan. Seriously?
“Please trust the surgeon,” said my nurse. “He’s very thorough, but very good.”
Afternoon passed into evening, and the CT scan happened. More waiting. Finally, around nine p.m., the surgeon called, explaining the delay. He said he was so glad he’d ordered the scan, because he could see that my appendix had already ruptured. I was needed in the operating room immediately. Oh, and I’d begun to run a fever.
Everything changed right then. In the OR, the surgeon met somewhat frantically with my husband and me, diagramming in pencil the various procedures he might need to perform, based on what the scan seemed to indicate. I won’t go into detail, but some of the options were quite frightening. The doctor wouldn’t know how bad things were until he could look inside.
Now I’ve had a few surgeries in the past—an ovary removed, several breast lumps, a melanoma on my back—but never have I signed consent papers with the same level of anxiety I felt that time. I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t have much time to worry, because I under anesthesia moments later.
The procedure took almost three hours. When I awoke, I was kept in the recovery room for over six hours because of low blood pressure. I had peritonitis, and would be on strong antibiotics for a couple of weeks. A nasogastric tube was draining poisons from my stomach, and two surgical drains were protruding from my abdomen, pumping out fluid and pus.
The following day, as I sat in bed hungry and draining, the internist from my floor came to meet with me. He said he was so glad the surgeon had insisted on that CT scan, and then said, “I think if you’d gone two more hours, something very bad would’ve happened.”
I cried then, knowing what he meant. As a parent to teenagers, I’m constantly telling my kids they’re not immortal, but hearing someone tell me I’d been that close to the end—and with very little warning—was overwhelming. It still is.
After five nights in the hospital, I’m home now, and feeling much better. I took a little walk in the snow yesterday and let it all sink in. It’s a cliché to say that your perspective shifts after such an event, but it’s also true. Everything—every laugh, every hug, every snowflake—feels a bit more real. I realize I’ll never be able to thank that surgeon enough for what he did–and for his very existence–but I can try to “pay it forward” and be a better person. And yes, I wore big sunglasses, so the people I passed wouldn’t notice the occasional tear rolling down my face.
I was still feeling weepy as I stood on the sidewalk, preparing to cross a busy street. When it looked safe, I stepped into the crosswalk and started walking, but just then, a car came speeding along. Who knows? Maybe the person was texting, or adjusting the radio; in any case, they didn’t see me. I jumped back, and the car continued on its way.
At that moment, I understood that despite the drama of the past week–and despite the fact that my life was spared–it could end just as easily today. Or tomorrow. So I guess all we can do is make the most of our time here. I wish I could say something more profound, but as I sit here typing—and feeling darn grateful for that ability—it’s about the best I can do.