If I had taken the advice of my emergency room doctor tonight, I would be in a hospital bed — getting ready for surgery in the morning. I didn’t take his advice, though, so I’m back home. Only time will tell whether I made the right decision.
I started feeling lousy on Christmas Day and I felt worse as the week went along. At first, it was just discomfort in my chest and back. I felt terrible in multiple ways. I went to work each day but I barely pulled myself through each day until it was late enough to go home and collapse.
By Thursday morning, the discomfort had turned to serious pain. I went to the clinic of a friend who’s a doctor about 11:30 a.m. After examining me and taking X-rays, he suspected the problem was my gallbladder, but he couldn’t be sure without an ultrasound.
He suggested I immediately head to a hospital emergency room.
By the time I got to the emergency room at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham, I was in the most pain I’ve ever experienced. The pain in my chest and back was so strong I couldn’t even breathe deeply. I sat in the waiting room and researched all the negative possibilities of gallbladder problems while I waited for a doctor to see me. (I also spent a lot of time thinking about why I didn’t have a wife to come with me, but that’s a bigger issue.)
Simple tests ruled out other issues and the evidence kept pointing to gallstones. I was taken up a floor to an ultrasound machine.
By about mid afternoon, the pain suddenly subsided. I still didn’t feel back to normal, but I felt the best I’ve felt in a couple of weeks. Had I passed a stone in some way? Is that what had been going on all week?
The ultrasound results confirmed that I have gallstones. The gallbladder itself wasn’t enlarged or inflamed, but some of my liver enzymes and bilirubin were strongly elevated above normal. (If you’re like me, you have little idea what those things even mean.) The doctor said this indicated that the liver is upset about what’s going on.
The ER doctor went off to consult a surgeon, who agreed that my gallbladder needs to come out. They recommended I stay at the hospital tonight and have the surgery in the morning.
At first, I agreed to their plan, but I started questioning this course of action as I started texting with my doctor friend and reading other information online. It wasn’t that I thought the doctors at the hospital were wrong; it was simply that I wasn’t certain they were right.
The doctor warned me that this could turn into pancreatitis. There were several other dire possibilities, but that’s the one I remember most clearly.
I’m home now — about to get into bed so I can get back to work in the morning — and I still don’t know whether I made the right decision.
Maybe the doctor was right. I don’t know. But I do know that he said the other issues that could develop from this would come with their own warning signs — which will give me time to get back to a hospital in case I need to.
When we make medical decisions in emergency rooms, it’s hard to know whether we’re making the right ones. We rarely have enough information — and the information you find online can be wildly contradictory — and we generally defer to trained physicians who are the experts.
That might be what I should have done. But I couldn’t find any downside to taking my time and figuring out all my options. The doctor friend with whom I was texting suggested that he might be able to help me fix the issue through dietary changes, for instance. I just know that I wanted more opinions and more information before I decided.
For me, that was the right thing to do. Time will tell whether it was the right medical decision, but it was definitely the decision I was most comfortable with knowing what I knew at the time.
I hope that very competent ER doctor will forgive me for not taking his advice.
Note: My illness this week kept me unable to finish my new podcast, so it will be delayed a bit. I’ll finish the first episode for you just as soon as I can.