Gallbladder Removal: My Cholecystectomy Experience
At first I thought I was suffering from nothing more than a lumpy mattress. I had gone to bed at about midnight on Sunday and I was lying on my right side reading a book. The slight discomfort I’d been feeling just below the ribs worsened, but it wasn’t painful and I brushed off as trapped wind. The discomfort then did turn to pain, and within ten minutes to severe pain, unlike anything I’d experienced before. I was alone in the apartment, so I had to deal with the situation on my own.
I took some paracetamol tablets and went online to see if I could find anything to ease my concerns (or scare myself half to death), and I soon had a self-diagnosis. The previous year I’d had a UV scan on my whole abdominal area and the results showed that I had gallstones. I was told to ‘be aware’ that they were there (whatever that meant). I know that the gallbladder is situated on the right side of the abdomen and so I began my online search with gallstones. After sifting through all the options, I nailed down the cause of my pain to a biliary colic.
A biliary colic is where a gallstone becomes dislodged and gets wedged in the bile duct, causing an obstruction. In order to try to shift the stray stone, the walls of the gallbladder contract, causing intense pain, said to be similar to labour pain. These symptoms fitted the bill and I learned, with heavy heart, that an attack could last several hours. I hoped that the pain would begin to ease of its own accord, and I spent the entire night pacing the flat and sitting on my bed, all the time suffering waves of the most exquisite agony.
With the sun coming up and no let up in the pain, I rang NHS Direct and I told them of my self-diagnosis. A doctor called back and told me that my condition did indeed tick all of the biliary colic boxes, and that I should go to A&E. I declined her offer of an ambulance and got washed and dressed.
The roads were pretty clear at that early hour, so I drove to Wansbeck Hospital. The pain didn’t affect my concentration much, although I felt that I was driving hunched up in the seat like Steve Buscemi after he’d been shot in the face in the film, Fargo. I parked the car and hobbled into A&E, where I gasped out my story to the receptionist. I was told to take a seat in the reception area.
As it happened, an acquaintance of mine was waiting to be seen too – he had something abrasive under his eyelid. We began chatting, but I couldn’t focus on what he was saying because of the pain. I apologised for this, but he could see that I was on another planet.
So what IS the gallbladder, and what does it DO?
Well, do you, or don't you?
Do you still have a gallbladder?
Kept in overnight
Finally, after only a short wait that seemed like hours, I was taken to a room where a nurse gave me codeine. She told me that this would take some time to kick in, but that I’d also be getting a blast of morphine to ease the pain. When she left the room, I made calls and sent texts to friends, family and my employer, letting them know of my situation and telling them not to worry.
As I texted, Doctor Morpheus entered the room. He let out a chuckle before assuring me that he’d soon have me sorted out. I was given the maximum dose of morphine, and its effect was swift. My scalp tingled as the pain drained out of me as though someone had pulled out the plug, and finally I could relax (boy, could I relax). A consultant came in to see me and he said that it would be best if they kept me in overnight. On hearing this news, my initial concern was that I’d be fined for overstaying the time allowed on my parking ticket, as I’d only paid for one hour. I was told not to worry about it.
I was taken to Ward 4, where, as I had come unprepared for an overnight stay, I was put into NHS issue pyjamas; blue top, green bottoms. I was given a small kit containing toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shampoo and soap. The first thing I wanted, however, was sleep and so I lay down on my bed and drifted off, pain-free at last.
I woke up at lunchtime to find that the pain had stayed away and I felt fine. I had a shave and then took some food and chatted with other inmates.
That evening I had several visitors and my friend Graeme brought me in a book to read. I spent a comfortable night and in the morning a consultant told me that, in his opinion, the best course of action would be the removal of my gall bladder. Not wishing to suffer pain like that again, I agreed and the cogs were set in motion that would eventually pull that organ out through a slit below my breastbone.
Arrival at the hospital
On the 16th of July 2009, I presented myself at the reception area of Wansbeck Hospital, and asked for directions to ward 15. This is where I was to prepare for, and recover from, the cholecystectomy I was booked in for later that day. I was apprehensive but not afraid. I reminded myself, like a nervous flyer, that what I was about to undergo was a routine operation that is performed many times every day. Besides, I once spent six days in a neurology ward with a fractured skull. In comparison to that, this was little more than a check up.
One thing that struck me as I followed the receptionist’s directions was that several weeks earlier when I turned up at A&E with pain from a stray gallstone (see Adios Gallbladder Part 1 below), they kept me in overnight. Yet here I was about to be anaesthetized and cut open in five places, and I would be going home the same day. Odd.
I found the ward and checked in. I sat reading in a chair by my bed for a while, until I was told to get dressed for surgery. A nurse drew the curtains around my bed and then left me to undress.
The get-up for an operation is not flattering. I wore the standard hospital gown under which I was clad in unisex underpants made of a material that resembled paper. A pair of knee-length, very tight white stockings completed the ensemble – these to protect me from deep-vein thrombosis.
A young man in green NHS uniform came through the curtains. He told me that he was the anaesthetist who would be putting me under. We conducted a quick Q&A and he left. I returned to my book, but I couldn’t concentrate. Like dental appointments and job interviews, the waiting turned out to be the worst part. After the anaesthetist’s visit, a nurse came in to administer my pre-med.
I lay on my bed and eventually, I heard footsteps approaching. The curtains were pulled open, and I was wheeled off to surgery at last. On the way to the anaesthetia room, the pre-meds kicked in and I rambled on like a drunk to those around me. I told a nurse that I was looking forward to being knocked out, as I didn’t sleep well at home, due to being woken early most mornings by lorries unloading at the supermarket just outside my flat. Then things moved swiftly. The anaesthetist I had spoken to earlier suddenly appeared at my left side.
“Remember me?” he said. I half expected him to continue with “Benny Blanco from the Bronx”, such was the suddenness of his appearance. He administered the anaesthetic, and within seconds the drugs enveloped me like a warm blanket, wonderfully soothing for a brief moment, until my consciousness was switched off instantaneously, like an electric light. I was out.
When I started to come round, I became aware of where I was and, as is common among those recovering from general anaesthetic, I wondered if I’d actually had the operation. I moved slightly and soreness in my chest told me that I had. On seeing me stir, a nurse came over to check on me and she confirmed that the operation had gone well. Soon after this I was taken back to the ward.
The soreness increased in intensity, I guess as a result of the anaesthetic wearing off. I had what were effectively five stab wounds in my torso through which the surgeon had performed keyhole surgery. One cut below my breastbone was much larger than the others – but still small when compared to the cholecystectomy scars of pre-keyhole days. I noticed rust coloured iodine stains on my paper underwear (at least I hope it was iodine).
I slept and rested and nurses came in to check on my progress. My lift home arrived and I got dressed with some difficulty. I felt dazed and sore as I walked out of the hospital. It was raining heavily outside and as I approached the huge revolving door at the hospital entrance, a woman coming the other way just missed poking me in the chest with the tip of her umbrella. Now that would have hurt.
So my gallbladder and I went our separate ways. I fared better than my ex-organ, because while I made a full recovery, it was incinerated.
I was never given any official advice as to how my diet might affect my new internal situation. I knew that without a gallbladder to store bile, my digestive system would not be able to break down fats as easily as in my pre-operation days, but some things are hard to resist.
I have succumbed to the temptation of pizza many times, and on occasion I have paid the price with discomfort and indigestion. Other than that, however, I don’t feel any different without my ‘biliary vesicle’.
I did not get to keep any stones.