A Surgery Surprise

Mary Oliver

Mary J. Oliver, July 29, 2011

As I reported in my post Life Postponed this January, I haven’t been feeling well for quite awhile.  I finally did get in to see a surgeon on February 21 for a consult. He promised to   call the following week to set up  gall bladder surgery sometime in the near future.

My body couldn’t wait that long.  I had a horrific flare-up on Friday, February 24.  The pain was almost unbearable in the afternoon, but  I “toughed it out” that night.   I have a high tolerance for pain, which has not worked in my favor this time in my life.

Saturday morning I woke up with a fever, so I phoned the on-call nurse.  She told me to report to urgent care, where I was seen very quickly. After an interview, an EKG, check-up and blood tests, the doctor spoke to Dave and me.  He said my white blood cell count and bilirubin was way up and I needed to report to the emergency room.  I thought, “Well, I’m finally going to get this ugly old organ outta me!  It may be a more expensive way, but it will be OVER!”  We were pleased that I was getting the attention I needed.  After an ultrasound of the gall bladder area, I was admitted to the hospital and hooked up to several IVS.

It took a day or so to get my blood count and bilirubin in better zones.  Once this was settled, I went to surgery at 8:40 a.m., Monday, February 27.  Surgery to remove the gall bladder is usually a one hour operation.  When I woke up in the recovery room, there were two nurses hovering around me.  Even without my glasses, I could see the clock hands pointing to noon.   Too woozy to fully take that in, Dave joined us on our journey to room 731 at St. Joseph’s Hospital–where my sister and I were born, where one of my sons-in-law was born, where my mother died 22 years ago, where my youngest grandchild was born almost six years ago.

Dave was a acting weird.  He was pacing the floor, stretching his limbs and finding it hard to sit still.  He told me that Dr. Panian, the surgeon, would be in very soon to talk to me about the surgery.  Meanwhile, I was chattering away about the Academy Awards ceremony I watched the night before.  I generally hate awards television, but it was the only show available on the hospital network that I was even remotely interested in.

Dr. Panian arrived around one o’clock.  He told me that the operation had been much more difficult than expected because the gall bladder had become hard, dried out and fused on one side to the stomach wall and the other side to the duodenum.  He had to enlarge the slits for the laparoscopic surgery.  With the laparoscope he detected a spread of cancer cells from the gall bladder to the side of the abdomen and across the duodenum.  Considering the sites where the cancer had spread, this was an inoperable cancer.  My prognosis, with palliative chemotherapy, is one to two years.

Anatomy of the biliary tree, liver and gall bl...

Anatomy of liver and gall bladder

Image via Wikipedia


Dr. Panian had talked to my husband after the surgery, so Dave knew all of this. He  had volunteered to tell me, so Dave had tried to mask the knowledge and keep me as “Mary, who did not know she had cancer,” as long as possible.

One side of my brain doesn’t think it is real, but the rest of me feels assaulted by bad karma.  I feel cheated out of the opportunity to grow old with Dave–which we had promised ourselves when we got married almost 16 years ago. I don’t want to leave my two daughters now that we are in fulfilling times in our lives.  I want to watch my three grandchildren grow up.  I still have plans and projects that I will not see through to the end. I will miss the change of seasons, my cats, the wildlife around me.  I’m not ready to leave yet.

Covered Bridge near Yellow Springs, Ohio

We will be talking to the oncologist this week to decide the course of therapy.  My nasty old gall bladder had placed me at the bottom of the surgery list.  My cancerous gall bladder puts me right at the top.  It is unusual to have gall bladder cancer at all, but a 64-year-old having it is very strange.  Dr. Panian told us the only cases he encountered were in women in their mid-seventies.

I am fortunate to have a loving husband and sister, as well my daughters, relatives, friends and friends of friends to offer up prayers and good wishes.  In the midst of tragedy, there are blessings.

Yellow Crocus between bricks

Life Postponed

Family and close friends know that I have not been feeling well for several months now.  Actually, it has been about six months since I have started suffering from digestive problems that have become more severe as time passes.

When Dave and I returned from our Oregon trip in late September, I knew I had a bladder infection.   I waited about a week before going to the doctor because we got home right around my birthday.  I wanted to visit with a friend from out of town. The next day my older daughter treated me to a birthday brunch. The following day my other daughter and my granddaughter treated me to High Tea at the Brown Palace Hotel.  Then it really WAS my birthday, so Dave and I celebrated on THE day. By that time, the infection was severe and I ended up on a 14-day course of Cipro.  The medication worked, even though at times it felt like a case of the treatment being worse than the ailment!

When I received the word that I was okay, I began my exercise regimen at the fitness center and was feeling good.   Three weeks into my workout schedule, I noticed sharp pains in my right side.  Indigestion had not gone away once the bladder infection was cured, so I now suffered from severe nausea, the sharp pains in my side and back and terrible heartburn.

All of these symptoms cropped up as the holiday season began.   Their severity varied, so I adjusted my diet and decided to ride out the holiday season.  If I had something seriously wrong with me, I wanted to postpone knowing about it until after Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and my older daughter’s early January birthday.  Holidays are such a hustle and bustle under normal conditions, why complicate things?

I proclaim today, the 21st of January, that delaying is not a good idea.  When I finally got in to see my physician, the medical offices were as crowded as the post office before Christmas.  Everyone in my part of town had postponed medical appointments like I did.  Added to that, many new enrollees in my medical plan arrived for checkups, prescriptions or blood tests.  A few days later I was in radiology for a CAT scan.  It was crowded there as well.

The results of my test showed gall bladder problems, a blockage in the duct between my gall bladder and pancreas, a thickening of the gall bladder wall, inflammation and fluids where they shouldn’t be.  Okay, I already suspected gall bladder trouble, so I wasn’t surprised.  Let’s take care of it!

Anatomy of the biliary tree, liver and gall bl...

A "sausage" view of the innards I'm writing about...I never was curious about it until now! Image via Wikipedia

My Doc sent a referral to Gastroenterology and I called to make an appointment.  The first available appointment is February 21st!  When the scheduling nurse told me that, I said, “You are kidding!  What if this gets worse before then?”  Her reply was, “Go to the emergency room if the pain increases or if you begin vomiting.  You can always call about cancellations between now and your appointment.”  I waited for her to say, “Good luck!”  She didn’t.

I have called every weekday since.  I set my iPhone alarm to ring its most annoying sound, reminding me to speed dial Gastroenterology.  I know my medical id number by heart.  Pretty soon the staff will know my voice and my request.  They are unfailingly polite and friendly.  I feel rather ghoulish calling so much, waiting for a time to open up.  If one does, is it because someone else went to the emergency room—or died?

What has this taught me?   Don’t postpone medical problems.  Everyone else does, so you will be with the pack rather than ahead of it.   Now I find myself putting my life on hold as I wait for surgery and to finally feel better.