Phase 1: My Early Symptoms
In the wee hours of Groundhog’s Day, I wake up with stomach pain. Not thinking much of it, I go back to sleep only to wake up a few hours later with the same pain. I start to think something of it.
Palpating my stomach and feeling worse pain on my lower right side, I wake Ryan up circa 5 AM (to be fair, he was going to get up at 5:45 anyway) in hopes he can diagnose or reassure me. He said it could be appendicitis and it could also not be. He has limits as a medical student.
Part of what deprived Ryan of a more confident diagnosis was that my symptoms did not meet the norm for appendicitis. I had abdominal discomfort and only felt pain when I put pressure on my lower right side. Traditionally, the pain is much worse when you immediately release the pressure, but this did not happen for me. My appetite was significantly lower, but the pain was not excruciating.
Several people I talked to about it after the fact mentioned surprise at how quickly I brought myself to the hospital. A few of them touted somewhat pridefully how they refuse to go to the hospital unless they can no longer move or the pain is too immense.
For me, it was the overwhelming gut feeling that something was not right. This pain was too different from any stomachache I had before, and I have had my fair share of those. After trying to study for an hour and thinking the issue may have subsided, I pushed again on my lower right side only to be reunited with the abnormal pain. I had given it enough time to pass and it had not. After alerting Ryan, by now at Loyola starting his day in the Neurology department at the VA hospital, and my mom and cancelling my clients for the day, I walked myself to the hospital.
Phase 2: The Emergency Department
The wait to be taken back to a bed in the emergency department (ED) was surprisingly short. I met with a female ED doctor and her residents who gave me a short physical exam and extracted blood to be tested. The attending expressed doubt that it was appendicitis since I lacked the typical signs and said we would wait to see if my white blood cell count was high to confirm, as an abnormally high white blood cell count is associated with infection. I wanted to feel relief at her level of calm and doubt, yet I kept feeling an overarching sense that something was not right. More than anything, I wanted direct confirmation of what was going on inside of me.
Initiate the first long waiting period. I could hear the nurses talking right outside of my curtained cubicle, and at times I wished I could just go out there to participate in some conversation. At one point, the senior emergency resident came back to better explain what they were looking for in the tests and what potential next steps could be. I really appreciated that attempt to keep me in the loop since it helped me feel cared for during a lonely time.
Finally, the doctor came and said my white blood cell count actually was high (13 to be exact, for those interested), so they would be ordering a CT scan to look at my appendix. Having been through this last July, I knew that meant no more drinking water or eating except for drinking two large jars of barium – mixed berry flavor, mmmmm.
I drank the barium over the next hour and was then asked to remove myself from the hospital bed to a small waiting area completely open to the rest of the ED. The nurse escorting me around the corner asked if 25 was allowed to put clothes back on, and it took me a second to realize he was talking about me. It makes sense that they would not want to yell out patients’ names but it also felt really impersonal to be referred to that way when I was standing right next to him. Anyway, because I brought jeans with a metal button and zipper, I could not put my clothes back on for the scan. That meant rocking the hospital robe in the small waiting area.
Eventually, I was wheel-chaired, as per hospital policy, back to the scanner machine. A nice technician hooked me up and got me through the scan pretty quickly. Laying on your back, they move you back and forth through the scanner, asking you to take a deep breath and hold it in while they flush an IV fluid that makes you feel very warm all over. I am grateful for having known what to expect after having the same scan done last year and think I would have been much more overwhelmed by it otherwise.
After being wheeled me back to my little seating area and another hour of waiting for the results, I was asked to go into a different curtained off hospital bed for the doctor to debrief me. Surprise! she said, you have appendicitis! Calling me the coolest cucumber appendicitis patient she had seen, she went on to describe that the CT scan showed an inflamed (but not ruptured, thankfully) appendix, and I would receive an appendectomy.
Not long after she gave me the news, two surgical residents came by and explained what a laparoscopic appendectomy is, the risks involved, and the expected timeline for when I would receive it this afternoon — only a couple more hours until I should be on the table. The senior resident, Dr. Chen, did well in appearing reassuring and offering me the opportunity to ask questions. Had I been feeling less anxious, I would have enjoyed getting to know him and his background better.
The senior emergency resident stopped by again to see how I was doing and further reassure me that the surgery would be fine. Another very appreciated moment for me. Unfortunately I did not see her or the emergency team again after that. I wish I could thank them more directly for the role they played in getting me the help I needed and getting me through this first part of the process.
Before I was swept away to pre-op, Ryan’s dad popped by for a quick but humorous and well-needed visit with a familiar face. The whole experience felt surreal so far, and a big part of that was due to going through it alone. Seeing someone I knew, if only briefly, helped me feel more grounded and also renewed feelings of being supported.
Dr. Chen came for me and put me on a gurney, and as I was rolling through the long empty hallway leading to pre-op, I felt increasingly overwhelmed. I kept thinking, Is this really happening? This is really happening. Please let Ryan make it before I have to go into surgery.
Phase 3: The Surgery
In pre-op, a nurse warned me that I really should give valuables, i.e. my wallet and engagement ring, to a person rather than relying on the hospital to hold it for me through the surgery. That was anxiety-provoking since Ryan was not there yet, and there was nothing else I could do about it. The surgeon, Dr. Fronza, came by to introduce himself and reiterate the aspects of the surgery that Dr. Chen and the other surgical resident laid out for me earlier. He had a nice reassuring demeanor.
Next came the anesthesiologist who I forcefully warned that my only other experience with anesthesia 10 years ago resulted in multiple bouts of puking after the fact so anything he could do to help me avoid that would be much appreciated. He said that was very doable, but I still had my doubts.
Finally, Ryan arrived! Yay!! My valuables were safe, and I received my good luck pre-op kiss. A nurse anesthetist hooked me up with some calming drugs and also said she would give me anti-nausea medication – success. Ryan chatted with me and the senior surgical resident for only a few minutes before I was wheeled away to the big show.
The operating room was blander-looking than I anticipated and contained a lot of people, which I had been warned about. My anxiety was diluted by the calming drugs and my strong defensive denial that this was a big deal held up through the start of the surgery. The surgeon, residents, OR nurses, and anesthesiology team all went around introducing themselves as I was hooked up to the good stuff. Then I went to sleep.
I woke up after the surgery still in the operating room as they were moving me from the surgical table to a gurney. I tried communicating that I felt incredibly nauseous. I remember someone telling me that is normal and it would pass before I soon fell back asleep.
Someone took me to a post-op room where I came in and out of consciousness for an unknown length of time. The room lay open to a hallway where I saw several people walk by, mostly hospital personnel, and no one looked in or made eye contact with me. I wanted to ask someone how long I had been here and when I could expect to leave, but I did not have the energy to speak up. I just wanted to see Ryan.
When I was finally wheeled to my hospital room and saw Ryan, my overwhelm reached its peak and all the stress from the day came crashing down at once. I had done so well containing my nerves before the surgery, and now that it was over, they craved release. I wanted to cry from it all but held it back. Two nurses wheeled me next to the hospital bed and told me to take my time moving from the gurney to the bed. It was crazy painful, but I rushed through it just to get it over with. Apparently this is an atypical strategy and impressed the nurses and Ryan, but the logic made sense to me.
Ryan stayed with me for a few hours. I wanted to talk with him, but I still felt drowsy from the anesthesia and napped a couple of times. Our friends, Jeff and Casey, stopped by briefly to say hi, wish me well, and give me balloons. The nurses rotated so we met the night nurse who would later feel like my comrade in arms. I was sad to see Ryan go but also needed him to keep Lana company and understood he could not stay.
Phase 4: The Hospital Stay
My abdomen was very sore from the surgery and my throat felt painfully dry from being intubated. I did not have an appetite but drank cold water constantly to ease the pain in my throat. I was allowed to take pain medicine every six hours and would have preferred to be able to take it every four since by six hours in the pain was pretty debilitating.
The constant drinking meant several bathroom trips overnight. I did not need assistance in the bathroom, but I did require the night nurse’s help in unhooking the compression boots from my calves to be able to shuffle my way to the bathroom. Each trip was incredibly painful since I needed to exert my abdominal muscles to get up and down. I only felt faint from the effort once when I got up right before I was allowed to take more pain medication. Thankfully the night nurse had my medicine at the ready as I rushed back to the hospital bed to lay down before passing out.
I got the feeling that even though I bothered her every hour or two for help getting to the bathroom, she appreciated the change of pace from patients just complaining or requiring more invasive assistance. My requests, though frequent, were straightforward and easily met. However she felt, she was incredibly nice and never made me feel bad about pushing the call button. She is another one that I wish I could properly thank, and I missed her after her 12-hour shift ended.
I slept on and off throughout the night, keeping the TV on a movie channel for the sake of having a little noise to help ease the loneliness and fear. There is some awful TV on at night. For example, did you know Matthew McConaughey starred in a movie called Surfer, Dude in 2008? I never heard of it and was not too surprised when I looked it up and read that it has 0% on Rotten Tomatoes. From the bits and pieces that I saw, I do not recommend it.
Once daylight came, I just wanted to know when I would be able to leave. I knew Ryan still had to work that day, but it really is not fun being in a hospital, especially by yourself. I wanted to be home.
Sometime between 11AM-noon, the day nurse finally gave me my discharge papers and walked me through my post-op medication. Ryan’s dad popped by again briefly that morning and offered to pick me up in the afternoon if I needed it. Thankfully our neighbor, Debbie, was able to come over right away, and she even graciously bought me a shirt on the way to the hospital when I realized that my shirt from yesterday had somehow gone home with Ryan and my valuables. (I kept the engagement ring and asked for it to be put back on as soon as I got to the hospital room after the surgery.)
Lana was undoubtedly sweet when I got home. Debbie ran her outside for me before having to leave to go back to work. I made myself some oatmeal and tried to find a comfortable position on the couch until Ryan came home to take better care of me.
Phase 5: Ongoing Recovery
So ends the more detailed portion of this story. I wanted to recount my hospital experience since the more medically-minded folk may be interested and to help myself remember and appreciate the scope of that whirlwind experience. Since then, I am in an ongoing state of recovery.
While my recovery is not proceeding as quickly as I would hope, it is consistently moving in the right direction. I ended up taking close to a week off of work, having just a shortened day a week after the surgery and resuming my usual schedule a week and a half post-op. Unfortunately I really needed the extra time to rest. Sitting upright in a chair like I do when talking to clients was painful and too uncomfortable right after the surgery, in part because my abdomen was residually bloated from being pumped up with carbon dioxide for the surgery giving me a cute little potbelly for a while.
A beautiful deep bruise formed over one of the lacerations. At one point I could see its relation to an orca! Before this surgery, I certainly did not appreciate how often I use my abdominal muscles. Standing up. Sitting down. Positioning myself in bed. Coughing. Laughing. Walking. Learning how to compensate for the pain took time and much of the pain was unavoidable.
I experienced a rotating pattern of symptoms that would each come for a couple of days before being replaced by something else. This included chest pain on my right side when I breathed in deeply, pain in my right shoulder that got worse when I laid on it to sleep, and rotating pains in my abdomen – from bruise-like pain around my belly button laceration to a more sharp pain in my lower right side when exerting myself, not to mention the sensitivity of the dark bruises that reached the surface of my skin. Most of these passed after a few days with others coming in and out for a week at a time. The bruises are still fading away.
Some of the perks of recovering from surgery include having an outpouring of support from friends and family that surprised me and really helped me feel better. I received some puppy get well flowers from my mom and a mega-box full of healing macaroni and cheese from Student Doctor Rambo. It feels nice to be cared about after going through such an intense experience, so an extra thank you to all of those who checked in on me at one point or another throughout the recovery process.
In my follow-up appointment this week, the surgeon, Dr. Fronza, told me that everything seemed normal. I still have pain when you put pressure on my lower right side, as Fronza proved a few more times than I thought necessary, that most likely reflects a deep bruise under the skin. I am cleared to resume normal activity and told to simply listen to my body if it tells me that I am exerting myself too much.
As I mentioned in the last post, Ryan has been incredibly supportive and helpful during this period where I am basically useless. It took a little over a week before I felt comfortable going on a decent walk with Lana by myself, and Ryan woke up extra early to be able to walk her for me in the mornings prior to that. He has been cleaning, cooking, and cleaning some more. He listens to my complaints about pain and keeps me company as often as he can.
For her part, Lana has been surprisingly awesome and heart-wrenchingly sweet. I received many cuddle sessions and looks of concern, as exemplified in the picture at the top of this post. She was patient with my first several walks alone with her that had to be much shorter and slower than usual. I think she lost some of that patience a little before I was ready, but that is ok. She is a dog.
My stamina will be tested soon with an upcoming vacation involving a couple of long flights (eek!) and whale watching on a small zodiac boat! Thankfully the majority of the trip will offer ample opportunity for relaxation, and hopefully I will keep feeling more like myself each day.