Gallbladder Removal Surgery: My Experience

I’m writing this almost exactly 24 hours after having my gallbladder removed via laparoscopic surgery. This is a procedure that was deemed necessary after two major gallbladder attacks sent me to the ER, and an uncounted number of smaller attacks have been plaguing me for months (if not years).

Yesterday was insane. Thought I’d share my experience in case anyone else I know (and I’ve gotten messages from a few of you) are in similar boats with your gallbladders.

Symptoms and Wrong Diagnosis

Basically, any time I had a big meal or ate anything fried, fatty, or otherwise delicious, I felt pain in my upper back and along my ribs on the right side. Sometimes, the pain would present directly under my sternum as an overwhelming fullness.

For years, it was assumed that this was acid reflux. I have acid reflux, but because gallbladder attacks present similarly to it, I would eat Tums and drink Pepto Bismol hoping for the best. The symptoms rarely went away quickly, and I just learned to live with it.

The most recent major attack came just 1.5 months after the last one. This time, it was beyond the most painful experience I had ever had before. Stepping on rusty nails, slamming fingers on car doors, etc. None of it came close to the feeling of impending doom and pain that came with a full-on gallbladder attack.

My wife rushed me to the ER as I thought I was having a heart attack. Gallbladder attacks mimic heart attacks, and can present as one. Everyone is different, and not every gallbladder attack is as severe. Some of them last 15 minutes, while others can last 5 hours with varying degrees of pain.

After an EKG came back clear, the ER staff started looking for other possible causes of my condition.

Diagnosis

An x-ray, CT scan, and an ultrasound were performed that night. The x-ray concluded I didn’t slip a disc in my back. This is where most of my gallbladder pain occurred. It’s different for everyone.

The CT scan included an injection of iodine. This scan revealed that I have gallstones. This lead them to perform an ultrasound to determine the following:

  • Is the gallbladder inflamed?

  • How many gallstones are present?

  • Is there a gallstone lodged somewhere that requires immediate surgery?

For me, there were no stones in my common bile duct, a shared tube that carries bile from the liver and gallbladder to the intestines. This tube is also connected to the pancreas which, if blocked, can be a life-threatening problem.

Scheduling Surgery: the Importance of Timeliness

I was released from the ER with the name and number of a surgeon and told to have it out within 1-2 weeks. This was also the last time I would be without symptoms, ever. The weeks following this ER trip were filled with constant pain. My upper back, chest, stomach, and throat bothered me every time I ate anything. Even fat-free products were triggers.

The earliest the surgeon I was referred to could see me was a month later. This is just for the initial consult, and I might have to wait even longer to have the procedure, so I called a close family friend who worked in the medical field for advice.

They, too, had her gallbladder removed. In her case it was an emergency surgery, as the condition had affected their liver function. I was given the sound advice to seek the help of a gastroenterologist, a doctor that specializes in digestive tract issues. They, too, were booked out to September.

I decided to visit my primary care physician to get her advice and find out more about my diagnosis. She noted that the ER’s findings were that I needed to see someone sooner than later, and referred me to a surgeon that could see me the following Tuesday.

The next day, my condition worsened. I was in pain, my symptoms had evolved into the ones that are in the list the ER gave me to seek immediate medical attention, and I called the clinic to let them know. I was scheduled immediately to see the on-call surgeon.

After a day of tests, it was determined that I wasn’t on my deathbed, but I would need to have it out soon. I was scheduled for surgery that Friday morning.

Day Before Surgery: Pre-op Exams, Up-front Payments

The day before surgery I didn’t expect to be in a hospital. I wanted to spend the day playing Counter-strike and enjoying what would be my last day of relative comfort before a big procedure.

I was wrong. There are a series of pre-op tests that need to be performed at the hospital to ensure that I am ready and able to undergo the procedure. I received a call from Seton Medical Center and was told to make my way down there by noon to start the pre-op exams.

Before we got there, I received a phone call from my surgeon’s office letting me know that my estimated out-of-pocket expenses would be about $117, and was asked to pay over-the-phone at that time. When I let them know I was using a Flex card (a card that takes money out of your paycheck before taxes for medical expenses) they told me to hold off and wait for insurance to clear since Flex cards are hard to refund the difference to.

At the hospital, the folks at the desk gave me another bill, and told me it had to be paid in advance. Another out-of-pocket expense of about $430. This one they wouldn’t hold off on, saying that I had to pay at least half to get a payment arrangement, unless it was an emergency. I paid the whole thing right there, so we wouldn’t be plagued by this later on.

The next stop was the actual exam room. Since I had my blood tests run the day prior, they actually didn’t have any tests to run on me. They just asked me questions about my history, medications I’m taking, and level of cardiovascular health. I met with a nurse that worked with the anesthesiologist who told me about the anesthesia and gave me another bill (to be paid up-front) of about $140.

Walking out of the pre-op exams, I was out-of-pocket a little over $700 and armed with a little more knowledge about the next day’s procedure. The whole visit took about 3 hours, including wait time.

Surgery Day: Nerves and Nurses

First off, it’s a lot less terrible than it sounds. I had myself all worked up over the risks of surgery and whether or not I’d be in pain. Truth is, laparoscopic surgery isn’t that bad.

When we arrived at the surgery check-in, they gave me a pager and verified my name and date of birth. It wasn’t but a few minutes before we were called back to the staging room where an IV was put in my hand, starting a drip of fluids. The staff was incredible. I had more paperwork to sign, and answered a half-dozen questions about my date of birth.

When the anesthesiologist arrived, I asked him to make me forget as much as possible, and informed him of my anxiety. He assured me that I would get the good stuff, which I did. After almost two hours waiting in the staging room with my wife, he gave me something to ease my anxiety and started pushing me toward the OR. On the way he told me I wouldn’t remember anything after about a minute, because the medicine he gave me was going to kick in.

He was right. We got into the OR and I moved to the operating table, put a mask on to get oxygen, and that’s the last thing I remember. Everyone was very polite.

The OR looked a little like the one from Grey’s anatomy, but not much. It was very bright, and it seemed a lot bigger.

My wife would tell me later on that the surgeon said my gallbladder was full of big stones. Stones of that size wouldn’t pass through my common bile duct, which was a good thing, but they weren’t comfortable.

Waking Up: Soreness, Dry Mouth, and Silly Tweets

I dreamed while I was asleep. I don’t remember what about, but I know I had a dream. I woke up in a different room with a few other patients recovering next to me. I watched people get wheeled in and out, each of them coming out of the controlled coma the anesthesia puts you in.

My vision was blurry for a few minutes, and my mouth was extremely dry. The nurse gave me ice chips whenever I asked for them, and told me I was about 10 minutes away from seeing my wife again. Breathing was difficult. I felt I had to consciously think about breathing, and every breath was accompanied by soreness on my right side.

I felt naked. I kept asking the nurse if she could see my “willy” and if I could cover it. She told me I had a blanket but I was too out of it to know whether or not it was true.

After a while a kind young man pushed my bed to another, private recovery room and two nurses helped me “reassemble my gown” so I could see my wife without looking like a mess. I remember telling them not to look at my butt, and they laughed and said that’s the last thing they’d be interested in.

Before long, my wife and her parents were in the room with me. Someone asked if I wanted graham crackers and Ginger Ale. I said yes, and I got the ginger ale but no graham crackers. That first sip was magic. My throat was so dry and scratchy from the tube they inserted during surgery that even something as nasty as Ginger Ale (It tastes bad. Let’s be honest here) was a welcome relief.

I grabbed my phone and got on Facebook. I wanted to tell my parents, good friend Will, and aunt Doreene I was OK. They had all been my rocks and my advice givers throughout the past couple weeks. I ended up writing some pretty badly-phrased gibberish on Facebook about Ginger Ale tasting like pee and wheelchairs.

It seemed like we were there for five minutes before I was put in a wheelchair and rolled out to my wife’s car. She drove me home and fed me, and there was no nausea at all. Perhaps for the first time in almost a month.

I felt sore when I moved. Any time I activated my stomach muscles I felt it. I was told prior to the surgery that the worst of it would be my belly button, but this wasn’t the case. I actually don’t feel any pain there at all. It’s all in a space between the other two incisions (I had three total) around the spot where my gallbladder used to be.

On a scale of 1-10: the soreness is about a 3-4. It’s noticeable, and it’s uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have me in tears or wishing I hadn’t had the surgery.

The Next Morning: Soreness

Post-op soreness is still there. I felt it when I woke up for sure. It’s not in the same place the doctor told me I’d feel it, but I’ll forgive him since he did such a bang-up job getting me out the door with no nausea.

My original gallbladder symptoms are almost all gone. I don’t feel nausea when I eat or drink anymore. I don’t have constant stomach and chest pain. As long as I lay/sit still I feel fine.

Getting in and out of bed is hard without help, but otherwise I can walk around and handle my business. Told not to lift anything over a gallon of milk for a few weeks, or 20 lbs. for 7 weeks.

Anyway, wow. 24 hours post-op and I’m doing OK. I’m about to take my first shower to wash off all the iodine, blood, etc. You can’t shower for 24 hours because the skin glue and bandages they used need to be intact as long as possible.

Summary

Over all, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The experience was mostly paperwork and saying my date of birth to everyone I talked to.

My gallbladder needed to come out, and waiting could have opened the door to a lot of other problems that are much more serious. An infection, gangrene, and even a ruptured gallbladder could have occurred if I hadn’t gotten it done. All of which are potentially life-threatening and emergencies that would have required an operation in a much less organized fashion.

I have a few days of pain meds and soreness ahead of me, but so far I’m doing great.

If you are in a situation where your doctor has advised gallbladder removal, take some time to educate yourself on what the gallbladder is and how having it removed can help your situation. You may have to adjust your diet after the procedure (I still don’t know if I’ll be able to tolerate the foods I love the most yet. Not everyone can.) and you are always entitled to second opinions.

This post is not to be considered medical advice. It’s one person’s story, and not based from a place of medical knowledge or experience beyond that of being a patient.

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