It first started after a large order of Chinese food. I was ecstatic to find a vegetarian Chinese restaurant that delivered to my address, and in my excitement, I ordered a few too many dishes.
About an hour after the meal, I started to feel unwell. I blamed it on simply having over-indulged. I tried some antacids and laid down. But the pain didn’t abate. In fact, it got worse — much worse. I began to panic a little as the searing pain in my breastbone spread through my stomach and into my back. At its peak, it felt like I was impaled from front to back, as though an iron bar was splitting me through my ribs and out my back. I writhed around in agony. In between taking ragged gasps of air, I wondered seriously if I might be having a heart attack.
My boyfriend at the time (now my husband) was concerned and took to rubbing my back in between my shoulder blades. This seemed to ease some of the pressure, but the attack continued for a few hours until I was violently sick. Then the pain seemed to vanish. Exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep.
The next day I felt drained and emotionally fragile. I imagined this was a one-off event. I had no idea that these symptoms would plague me for the next five years, from misdiagnosis to misdiagnosis. It was knowing my body and having the conviction to be well that carried me through.
Only the beginning
Over those years, I would wake up in the middle of the night with these excruciating chest, stomach, and back pains at least every other week. An appointment with my general practitioner was met with vague suggestions of a diagnosis. He asked me to keep a food diary to see if we could identify a particular trigger. But I was just as likely to have an attack after simply drinking a glass of water as I was after gorging on junk food. I knew it wasn’t about the food.
Each time, the pain would wake me from my sleep. My cries and movement would wake my partner from his sleep. The finale was always the same: I would end up in the bathroom, vomiting. It was only then that I would receive some temporary relief.
Misdiagnosed and in pain
Friends and family speculated that maybe I had an ulcer, so back to the doctor’s office I went. But my doctor told me it was just indigestion and prescribed antacids, which did nothing to numb the extreme pain I was experiencing.
Because the episodes were sporadic, it took a little while to realize the treatment wasn’t working. After another year of hell, I had had enough and decided to seek yet another opinion. In my third overall attempt to understand what was wrong, a new doctor prescribed esomeprazole, a medication to decrease the amount of acid in the stomach. I had to take the pills every day despite only having attacks a couple of times per month. I didn’t notice any decrease in the frequency of my episodes and was starting to lose hope that I would ever have a clear plan of treatment.
Considering 12 million Americans are misdiagnosed with conditions every year, I guess I wasn’t the outlier — but this didn’t make the experience easier.
Finally, an answer
I made an appointment to see my doctor once again, and this time, I decided I wouldn’t leave until I had some new information.
But when I walked into the room, my usual doctor was nowhere to be seen and a new doctor was in his place. This physician was bright and cheerful, sympathetic and vibrant. I immediately felt that we were already making more progress. After doing a few checks and reviewing my history, he agreed that there was more going on than just indigestion.
He sent me for blood work and an ultrasound, which may have been my saving grace.
I had gallstones. A lot of gallstones. They were blocking my bile duct, causing the pain and vomiting. I didn’t know anything about the gallbladder at the time, but I learned it’s a small organ next to the liver that stores bile, a digestive fluid. Gallstones, which are deposits that can form in the gallbladder, can range in size from a grain of rice to a golf ball. Even though I didn’t seem to be a typical gallstone candidate — since I’m young and within a healthy weight range — I was among the more than 25 million Americans who are affected by the condition.
I was just so grateful to finally have an answer. Every time I had asked my doctor in the past and complained about my symptoms, I felt like I was wasting his time. I was sent away, time and time again, with a solution that turned out to be a bandage for my symptoms. But I knew that what I had was more than simply a case of indigestion, especially as it often occurred on an empty stomach.
Healed and grateful
My doctor scheduled me for surgery to remove the gallbladder. I was a bit nervous about having a part of my body removed, but without the surgery, there was a greater risk of the gallstones returning. Pain aside, the potentially deadly complications with gallstones were not worth the risk.
When I woke up in the recovery room, my surgeon told me that my gallbladder was full of gallstones. He said he had never seen such a number in one person and was sympathetic about all the pain I had experienced. In a strange way, it was a relief to hear this.
Looking back, I wish that I had insisted on further tests right at the beginning. Medical professionals are trained, qualified, dedicated experts. But they can’t know everything, and sometimes they make mistakes. I was reluctant to question my doctor’s opinion even though I felt that my symptoms were not controlled by the medication he prescribed. In the years since, I’ve become a better advocate for my own health and can now be the driving force in finding out exactly what’s causing a recurring set of symptoms, if it occurs.
Each of us is an expert in what is normal and right for our bodies and our own health. We need to trust our doctors’ informed opinions to make the best choices for our overall wellness. But we must also remain vigilant and continue to look for answers. We are our own best health champions.
Fiona Tapp is a freelance writer and educator. Her work has been featured on The Washington Post, HuffPost, New York Post, The Week, SheKnows, and others. She is an expert in the field of Pedagogy, a teacher of 13 years, and a master’s degree holder in education. She writes about a variety of topics including parenting, education, and travel. Fiona is a Brit abroad and when she's not writing, she enjoys thunderstorms and making playdough cars with her toddler. You can find out more at Fionatapp.com or tweet her @fionatappdotcom.