It’s hard to know where to begin with this post. Do I start with suspected food poisoning, turned probable gallstones, that was in fact, something incredibly rare and near fatal? Do I begin with what it means to trust your gut instinct? Talk about the mysterious ways of the universe? The acceptance that death will happen to us all?
Or shall I tell you a simple tale of my love for food and cooking, which over the last three to four years has been intensely challenged by what I can only call “gut” issues? Ongoing gut inflammation, bloating, irritability, and other seemingly minor issues that I’ve tried to manage through diet restrictions: no gluten, minimal dairy, no wine (yes really! I gave it up 18 months ago), zero sugar, minimal carbs.
Without rhyme or reason, consuming any of these over the past few years has occasionally, but never consistently, resulted in major discomfort which could last anything from a few hours to a day. Not to mention the inability to lose weight, the newfound ability to gain weight in a heartbeat, and my clothes not fitting me within the space of a day’s progression.
Over three years ago I told my M.D. in SF it was typically painful when I pressed on my gut area. She dismissed me. Wasn’t interested in my (to her pov) minor weight gain and told me I looked great. In the face of her incredibly unhelpful and dismissive response, I started down a path of working with my nutritionist, naturopath and traditional healthcare providers who believe in treating the body as a holistic system, not just one ailment at a time.
I’m here to tell you it cost a lot of money. Insurance providers don’t cover this. I got occasional relief, but it was always accompanied by a tough protocol: Take these two antibiotics for two weeks, and yes, you’re going to feel non-stop nausea. Cut out all sugar, all carbs and certain fats and write down everything you eat and how you feel. Take this supplement, do this stool test. And so it went on. I trusted my providers and when relief came it was always worth it, but it was never sustained for more than a few months.
I tested negative for the typical food allergies like gluten; mildly positive for a dairy allergy, and apparently egg whites and corn are a no-no. Removing items from my diet made dining out a mental puzzle. I became adept at speed-reading a menu, ejecting over 80% of dishes in 10 seconds and honing in on the handful that could be modified easily enough without driving chefs totally insane (hold the croutons, skip the cheese crumbles, that kind of thing).
I tried to embrace these lifestyle changes by upping my exercise and turning the dietary limitations into my own special Iron Chef. What can I make with the paltry ingredients in the basket today? Really, there isn’t much super creative to be done with leafy vegetables and lean protein, but I tried to make the most of it. And knowing that I felt better on a limited diet, made it somewhat worthwhile.
Fast forward to two weeks ago. I was in a good place gut-wise, having spent the better part of this year addressing yet more issues with a limited diet and RX. I was attending MindBodyGreen’s annual Revitalize event in Arizona, listening to the brilliant wisdom of nutrition leaders like Dr. David Perlmutter of Grain Brain fame, and learning to meditate with the wonderful Light Watkins. It had been a stressful time professionally, and I was taking the time to gather myself, restore and prepare for the next chapter ahead.
Then over the course of 24 hours I started to feel off. Thinking I had eaten something bad, I tried to power through. Doing morning yoga, heading to the spa for a massage. But all the while a pain below my ribcage started to build – coming and going with increased intensity. I tried to nap before making the seven hour journey back to the Bay Area. The journey was incredibly uncomfortable, with the last hour’s drive being the worst.
I stumbled into bed at 9pm hoping the “bug” would pass overnight. No such luck. Hourly bathroom visits, intense pain and even lying on the bathroom floor at one point. I wasn’t able to drink anything because it made me feel nauseous. I spent the entire next day on my bed, (watching Catastrophe, which is amazing btw).
A phone call to my local M.D. planted the seed that it might be gallstones and antacid remedies had no effect. By 6pm the pain was increasing and though in two minds about making the trip to the local ER, Monkey’s insistence and honestly, some greater power and gut instinct, propelled me off the sofa and behind the wheel of my car. A major pain attack on the way, almost had me pulling over, but I made it.
Thankfully, Monday night is a quiet night in the ER (#protip) and with no weekend drunks to deal with, I was seen incredibly quickly and given a bed to lie in. Suspected gallstones resulted in an ultrasound which revealed the possibility of something quite different: intussusception—a fold in my intestine—which only happens to one in a million adults. Because of its rarity, the on-call surgeon called for a catscan, which after two hours of drinking nasty liquid and being injected with iodine happened at midnight.
An hour later, the surgeon was out of his warm bed and sitting next to my fluorescent-lit one. He explained what had happened, confirmed intussusception, and said surgery was the only option.
Wait, what? I thought I’d be home two hours ago. I have Monkey to take care of and work to do. A trip to NYC next week. “Yes, sorry”, he said, “this can’t wait.”
Realizing that he wouldn’t have access to the Operating Room (OR) until late the next day, he called the team in and they performed emergency surgery at 3am, removing part of my intestines. As it turns out, one cannot live with a blocked intestine. Once the blood circulation is cut off, bad things start to happen, and in the worse case, left untreated for 2-4 days, death is inevitable.
Wait a minute. Hold on a second. Really? I was just doing yoga yesterday and I have a son to raise. So this mortality thing can’t happen now. And that’s what I told the nurses just before I went under. I have to come out of this, a smallish person really needs me.
I came to a couple of hours later minus eight inches of my intestine, groggy and having a hard time waking up, opening my eyes or even catching a full breath, The only thing I wanted to do was call Monkey. He didn’t even know I’d had surgery while he’d been sleeping. He says I was “weird” on the phone. Well, no doubt he’s right.
There followed two and a half long days in the hospital. The nurses were beyond amazing. Loving, spiritual even, and encouraging me all along the way. The food was diabolical and I will be thinking about this more over the coming months. The body cannot heal on canned, preserved crap, pardon my French.
Friends and family from far and wide rallied. Coming and going from my house, helping with Monkey and the dogs. Cooking for us, doing errands, driving me home from the hospital. Moving my car which had been abandoned in the ER parking lot. And the flowers! I must have had close to a dozen deliveries of gorgeous blooms. My nurses fought over who got to take care of me because my room smelled so good.
My amazing mum flew in from the U.K. within 24 hours and stayed a week. I couldn’t have managed without her. There’s nothing like family in a time of need. The daily Skype chats with my siblings and dad around the globe, lifted my spirits.
And the healing and pain from surgery really paled into comparison with the alternative, namely not being here. It is entirely humbling to go from being a high energy, rush-around, do-a-lot type of person, to someone who can’t sit up in bed without assistance. Cuts to the abdomen wall kind of impact your core, so it turns out.
And the smallest things are exhausting. Driving, as it turns out, is an energy drain. We don’t realize it when we are ‘normal’ – but drain the human battery and suddenly you realize the sheer focus and attention required to be safe on the road, not to mention the maneuvering and getting in and out of a car, is a huge effort for our bodies. Which might explain why all the commuting I’ve been doing in the last couple of years has left me so tapped.
There’s still a ways to go. We don’t know why this happened to me. We don’t know yet of the link between my gut issues of the past few years and this acute incident. We do know there was nothing cancerous in the tissue for which I am profoundly grateful. More tests and procedures are to come.
But, I can tell you that while it is a life-long practice to take care of yourself, to eat right, listen to your body, exercise frequently, it is entirely worth it. I know it’s hard. I know it’s easier to eat a tub of ice cream and watch a movie. Yet when the day comes, and you can be sure that it will, and there’s a glitch in your insanely miraculous human body, all this will pay off. You will recover faster, handle surgery well and live to tell the tale with an entirely new lens on this precious life.