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Lessons Learned From a Medical Emergency

Personal Perspective: Gallstone surgery reminded me of truths to live by.

Key points

  • The first task of science is observation.
  • Do not make assumptions; be curious and ask questions.
  • Identify your goals and what help you need to meet them.
  • Resilience can spring from addressing trauma.
Source: johnhain/Pixabay

The other evening I began feeling uncomfortable during dinner. The homemade chicken soup I had lovingly simmered tasted fine, but shortly after beginning to eat it, I no longer felt hungry. A vague “I don’t feel so well” accompanied me through the following two hours.

My husband and I sat down to solve the day’s New York Times puzzles. Our ritual, each night before closing computers, washing up, and heading to bed, brought us reassurance of the pleasures we shared and teamwork we treasured, just like I had written they should (see “52 Ways to Show I Love You: Create the Right Rituals”). Suddenly, after typing our solution to Wordle onto the screen, I announced, “I can’t do this anymore. I need to lie down.”

Teeth brushed, face washed, I snuggled under the covers. The invisible vice that seemed to surround my chest became tighter by the minute. Observations: Short of breath? Not particularly. Feeling crushed? Definitely, a dense band circling my torso just beneath where my bra strap sat during the day. My shoulder was a “5” on the pain scale.

I did not want to alarm my husband, lying peacefully next to me, still in recovery from his own recent major medical emergencies. He had not driven in nearly a year and had only recently graduated in mobility to using a cane as often as his walker. Sometimes, in our new one-floor apartment, he could even walk without either.

By midnight my pain had subsided, and I slept for an hour, to be rudely awakened when the imaginary belt again began to tighten. My doctor had recently seen a tear in the MRI of my right rotator cuff, and I was working with a physical therapist but responding in an atypical fashion. The pain was now relentless. I lay awake reviewing options. Awaiting the morning’s opening of our Urgent Care Center no longer felt like a wise plan.

It was 3 a.m. I woke my husband and announced I needed to go to the hospital. Take an ambulance or drive? He voiced concern that an ambulance might not let him accompany me. I decided to drive our car. We parked in the last available ER space and walked into the lobby at 3:30 a.m. Personnel registered and then had me hooked up for an EKG within minutes. After the technician helped me onto a stretcher and I could lie down, I realized that all examination rooms were occupied; patients on gurneys just like mine lined the halls.

A doctor eventually got to me. He asked a nurse to insert an IV port, begin fluids and morphine, and draw many vials of blood. He ordered a chest x-ray, which could be done in the crowded hallway, and an ultrasound of my upper right abdomen, requiring a wait. The sun rose, and hospital personnel shifted. My husband patiently balanced himself on a chair alongside my stretcher. Finally, an orderly moved us into a cubicle.

Two surgeons representing two specialties came to explain the situation: My gallbladder appeared to be the source of the pain, but they wanted more information. Imaging. I sent my husband home, knowing he had lost a great deal of sleep, needed his morning medications, and inevitable delays stretched ahead. Driver’s license in his pocket for the first time in nearly a year, he headed home on the highway and did the best thing he could possibly do: he took care of his own immediate needs. Then he canceled entries on our calendar, marketing trip and physical therapy included.

“Transport” rolled me into Ultrasound, then back to the ER. Blockage and inflammation imagery confirmed that I needed surgery. Only a highly specific MRI could identify how complex (and dangerous) the process might need to be. I was “admitted” to the hospital and rolled to a bed in a surgical ward. In the afternoon, my husband joined me there and accompanied me when Transport rolled my stretcher to the surgical suite.

Source: sasint/Pixabay

Three hours later, after I emerged from the general anesthetic that had accompanied the removal of my gallbladder, Transport returned me to a regular room where my husband’s strong arms helped me into the down bedjacket he had brought from home. I congratulated him on all the milestones he had passed during our ordeal, we kissed goodnight, and he prepared to leave.

My brain had come back online, observation skills intact. “Strange,” I commented. “No problem getting my sleeve into the arm of my bedjacket. My shoulder is not hurting. That’s odd, isn’t it?” Puzzled, we shook our heads, then shared intentions to get serious sleep during the night that had begun.

The story became boring. The hospital took great care of me, doctors answered questions, and I carefully passed the checkpoints for release the following afternoon: normal vital signs. Two long walks through the halls. Navigating the bathroom without aid. Surgeon-approved wound progress.

Source: Paulbr75/Pixabay

Finally, solid food without distress. Transport wheeled me to the front door; David welcomed me into the passenger seat; our apartment looked like a haven; my daughter delivered dinner plus the bounty listed on my abandoned marketing list. By the next day, I was following post-discharge precautions, feeling a lot better, and grateful for the reminders brought by the potentially life-threatening experience.

Scientific inquiry begins with observation.

Although nothing in my prior experience had suggested gastric distress, my body was telling me medical attention was urgent. Listening to it required only one further question: Could I drive? My cognition and movement responses were not impaired; off we went to the hospital.

Chest pain and no digestive upsets led me to wonder about my heart.

In 36 hours, I learned a lot about organs I had not yet personally encountered. Noting the loss of shoulder pain following surgery, I Googled “gallbladder” and learned that right shoulder pain can be a symptom of gallstones. So can abrupt weight loss. I had both. Atypical presentations can raise red flags that algorithms miss.

What do you want and need?

With the goals of repair and recovery, I was happy to hand off the help I needed—medical input for repair and social/instrumental support for recovery. Within days, I was again thriving.

A crisis can foster growth.

My own experiences with trauma had helped me behave intelligently during the crisis; situational demands pushed my husband beyond behaviors he had not thought feasible at this point in his own recovery. “Post-traumatic growth” is real.

Copyright 2022 Roni Beth Tower


Tedeshi, R.G., & Calhoun, L.G. (2004). Posttraumatic Growth: Conceptual Foundation and Empirical Evidence. Philadelphia, PA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

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