How to Murder Your Gallbladder
Now I've got your attention, let me just clarify something - this isn't a piece about killing your gallbladder, performing DIY surgery or otherwise removing your own (or anyone else's) vital organs. No, this is about how I found out that one of mine wasn't playing the game and what I did about it. Or, put another way, how I got sick and got well again, sans gallbladder.
Say Hello to Your Gallbladder
To be honest, while I was of course aware that I had one of these curious little objects inside me, I didn't know exactly what it was for, where I might find it, what it looked like or if in fact I needed the darn thing at all. Turns out we can manage perfectly well without one, but unless it goes wrong, you won't even know it's there.
But mine did go wrong, and let me tell you - it really hurts.
A few years back, I started having occasional bouts of chest/abdominal pain. Usually I would assume it was something I'd eaten that was causing some sort of indigestion, and indeed, sometimes it would clear up itself and I'd be fine for months afterwards. However, waking up one morning to find the pain I'd had most of the night was not only still there, but getting worse by the minute, I called for an ambulance and found myself whisked off to hospital.
Naturally, I thought I was having a heart attack (well, you would, wouldn't you?), but despite several tests relating to my liver, heart and kidneys, the doctors were unable to find anything wrong. Eventually I was discharged home (still in pain) with the advice that it was 'probably just a bug'. Right.
Some months later, I landed in hospital again with what I assumed was another fake heart attack. Yet again, the doctors could find nothing wrong. On the third occasion, I was given some medication that 'ought to clear it up', though they still didn't know what the problem actually was. So it was with some degree of satisfaction that when I ended up in hospital a fourth time, someone decided to carry out an ultrasound - thinking the trouble lay with my pancreas. And lo-and-behold, the truth was revealed: I had an inflamed gallbladder.
On that happy morning in May 2014, I was introduced to the sheer bliss of intravenous morphine. The pain disappeared almost completely within the space of a few seconds, and for the first time in many hours, I slowly began to relax. After waiting around for a hospital porter, I was taken up to a ward where a series of doctors and nurses proceeded to examine me.
Following visits from yet more doctors and nurses, I was seen by the consultant who told me I had two options:
- Go home and forget about it - it'll probably be fine
- Have an operation to remove the offending item
Thinking about it later, I was struck that no-one thought to let me know what it was that had caused the pain. Was it (for instance) my diet, or something to do with my lifestyle? More importantly though, whether there was anything I could do about it in the meantime, since, presumably, it would happen again.
My consultant advised that of course there were risks to the operation and that there were two possible procedures. I discovered a lot more about these procedure later, but at the time I happily agreed to go ahead with the operation, without really knowing much about it.
Well, I say that, but being the NHS (waiting lists, etc), it was three months later before I finally pitched up on the operating table.
Before I was sent home to ruminate on my decision, I was offered some advice by a couple of the other patients in my ward. Three of them were in hospital for gallbladder-related problems and they all advised that I keep a close watch on my diet, since if there were any trace of inflammation on the day of the operation, the whole thing might be cancelled.
So What is a Gallbladder?
As we all know, Google is a great source of information and as soon as I got home, I set about finding out exactly what I had let myself in for. I learned that the gallbladder is a pear-shaped little thing that collects and stores bile. This delightful-sounding concoction is very handy and contributes to helping your body digest fat.
Apparently, we don't actually need a gallbladder, since even if it isn't working properly, it won't necessarily cause any problems. Gallstones, for instance, can develop and hang around for years without the patient even being aware of them. However, in my case, while there didn't seem to be much evidence that a specific diet had caused the inflammation, my Google-type research showed that there was a fair chance changing my diet would help keep the problem at bay.
Changing our diet is a tactic most of us don't slide into easily, especially as it often means cutting out some or all of those foods we enjoy. My research made it pretty clear that if I wanted to avoid upsetting my temperamental little gallbladder, I should keep away from:
- High fat cheeses
- Butter and lard
- Cakes and biscuits
- Cream, ice cream
- High fat meats, particularly processed meats (salami, sausages, pepperoni, chorizo, ham, bacon)
Also, it's advised to avoid spicy foods and some high fibre foods like cabbage and cauliflower as they can prove difficult to digest.
So with my list of all the stuff I'd have to avoid before going in to have my gallbladder whipped out, rather predictably, I discover that these same foods should be avoided after the operation too, at least for a while. (I reckoned I'd introduce them back into my diet gradually, so my body could get used to them again).
So I gave up drinking.
I hadn't had any alcohol for a couple of weeks anyway, so it was simply a case of not buying any more. Since I didn't have much of a social life at the time, this wasn't too hard. I gave up three months before my operation and continued not drinking for a further five months afterwards. How easy it is to quit obviously depends on how much you normally consume, but for me it wasn't that difficult.
Food & Cooking
Initially, I printed out a long list of all the things I could eat, including a few items I wouldn't normally buy. Comparing it with the list of stuff I would normally buy, there were some obvious conclusions to be drawn:
- Cook from scratch
- Boil, steam, grill or bake
As the only meat I could eat seemed to be either chicken or turkey (though the occasional lean cut of lamb, beef or pork is also acceptable), I took to buying a large chicken each month and roasting it. After disposing of the lovely crispy skin, I'd cut it into portions so it would last several days. Making stock from the bones was good for soups too (I made a lot of soup!) and it was useful in risottos.
In the three months leading up to the operation, I didn't have any more pain. It occurred to me that maybe if I stuck to my new diet regime, I never would have any more pain, but did I want to take that chance? Hell, no!
The two options regarding the actual operation had been explained to me briefly, but on the day I was scheduled for surgery, one of the consultant's team came over to go through it again.
Laparoscopic cholecystectomy (keyhole surgery)
This technique is what the surgeon was aiming for and if all went well, four small incisions would be made in my abdomen, one of which would accommodate a camera (smile please).
This technique would only be used if medical complications cropped up, since it utilises one large incision across the abdomen. The only problem with this is the recovery time is considerably longer (about six weeks).
The doctor then went on to detail the long list of things that could go wrong:
The worst scenario (apart from death, obviously) is damage to the bile duct, which makes things very difficult for all concerned. It also demands further surgery following the initial operation. Other problems include bile leakage, bleeding, damage to the bowel or intestine, as well as the usual risks involved when using general anaesthetics.
The doctor drew a nice little diagram illustrating all this, which, I have to say, did nothing for my confidence.
I had keyhole surgery that went very well - I was discharged home the next day and back at work two weeks later. I should point out that the four small incisions in my stomach were hellish painful for the first week, but usually this was only when I moved, breathed, or tried to do anything at all. (Admittedly, I'm a bit of a wimp, so these minor twinges probably wouldn't bother most folk).
My diet hasn't changed much - I still cook mostly from scratch and eat mainly vegetables and the odd bit of chicken. I've suffered no ill-effects of the surgery and can happily declare that my gallbladder gave itself up without much of a fight.
Clearly, not everyone has the same story and I've read a great many accounts of operations that have gone terribly wrong, leaving patients with conditions much worse than the one they started out with, and in some case these have been life-changing. Thankfully, though, these horror stories are in the minority. In Britain, more than 60,000 gallbladders go the way of all flesh every year, so if you find yours is in need of being whipped out, I'd say go for it.