I know I haven’t been writing for a while. Here’s why:
Several weeks ago, I started feeling a strange sensation in the region of my gallbladder, which manifested after a particularly hedonistic weekend involving a great deal of cheese. It felt like what the internet described as resembling gallbladder problems. My sister had gallstones so bad that she had to have her gallbladder removed and it runs in families; so I thought I’d better consult a doctor.
I had dropped my previous PCP, and had been meaning to make an appointment with a new one. Now that I needed her, she wasn’t available, so made a “get-to-know-you” appointment with her for 3 weeks later and a same-day emergency appointment with a different doctor in her practice. A man.
I mention that the doctor was a man because I find that men, in general, are less tolerant of pain than women are. Perhaps because they don’t get cramps every month. Perhaps because they turn into such babies when they’re sick. Unfortunately, this means that when I talk to a male doctor and tell him I’m in pain, he dismisses it. This is compounded by the fact that, when I am asked to calibrate pain on a scale of 1-10, I compare it to the pain that I felt when I had shingles around my eye at a ridiculously young age and compare the current pain to that. Ankle so painful I can’t walk on it? Hmm, compared to shingles, I’d say that’s a 6.
I think the medical profession needs a new scale.
Anyhow, without prescribing anything or advising in any way, Mr. Doc sent me for blood tests, an ultrasound, and even a CAT scan. All the while, ignoring or downplaying my primary symptom of pain. Pain so bad that I couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to eat, couldn’t work. Could just spend the day lying in a curled up ball, weeping.
“If the pain gets bad,” he told me. “Go to the emergency room.”
An emergency room? In NYC?
I’ll take the pain.
Looking back now, I am glad that I did not go because they would have removed my gallbladder and, as it turns out, I did not have gallbladder disease.
Instead, I consulted Dr. Google. One person said heat helped with gallbladder pain, so I dug out my heating pad and used it so much, I was sure I was cooking my internal organs. Another person said that cow pose helped her; so I tried that and it helped sometimes but not others.
I really had no other symptoms than the pain. My digestion was fine. I didn’t have a fever. My blood tests were normal. This doctor – a stranger – was baffled and recommended seeing a surgeon.
A surgeon. Right.
The surgeon wasn’t available for 3 weeks. I asked if I should be seeing a gastroenterologist, since this was about my gallbladder. The doctor sort of shrugged and gave me a name. I tried to make an appointment: first available appointment was in 6 months. (No wonder he shrugged.)
By that time – 10 days after my initial visit about pain – the heating pad had caused tiny burns on my stomach, and my blood pressure dropped so low that I almost passed out one day, necessitating an emergency visit to my cardiologist, who told me to drink more fluids, temporarily suspend one of my medications, and – after a quick dash down the hall to consult a GE in her practice – an anti-gas medication.
One morning, as I lay weeping in fear and pain on the couch in my office, I re-thought my decision not to go to the emergency room. This had to be the worst pain I had ever experienced.
Wait. That phrase rang a bell.
The worst pain I ever…
The last time I said that, it had turned out to be shingles.
I thought about the tiny “burns” on my stomach.
Could this be shingles?
I consulted Dr. Google again and found a post from someone who was diagnosed with gallbladder problems, only to turn out to have shingles. And then another and another, and some articles posted by doctors who had removed gallbladders only to find that the patient had shingles.
When it hits your torso, shingles can present as gallbladder pain.
Shingles is a disease of the nerves that emerges in people who had chickenpox as children. Although it presents as a rash (actually a cluster of tiny blisters), it doesn’t feel like a nettle rash or hives or poison ivy. It’s sneaky. When I had it on my face, it felt like headaches.
When I had it on my torso, it pretended to be gallbladder pain.
Although we generally associate shingles with the elderly, people of all ages can get it because shingles can be triggered by stress. In my first bout, it was caused by the emotional stress of caring for my beloved cat who had been diagnosed with hyperthyroidism and kidney disease (the latter caused by the treatment for the former). We were having trouble balancing her meds and getting her to accept the home treatments and I felt responsible for her fluctuating health. I am sure there were work stresses at the same time – there are always work stresses. In fact, although you wouldn’t guess it if you met me, I am always so stressed out that it’s a wonder that I don’t have shingles all the time.
This time, maybe the stress comes from my mother’s death this summer. Or work…
The treatment for shingles is an anti-viral. It works really well if you catch the shingles soon enough. Luckily my appointment with the female PCP was the next day. She looked at the rash, said, Yes, Shingles, not Gallbladder. And phoned in a prescription, although it was later than she would usually prescribe it. The anti-viral helped, as did lidocaine, as did – ironically – icing the area. And wearing loose-fitting clothes, which is probably why cow-pose helped: when I arched my back, my clothing draped away from my torso, and stopped pressing against the nerves that were causing the pain.
Knowing that I did not have cancer or need emergency gallbladder surgery also reduced my stress.
There is a vaccine for shingles. Rumor has it that it’s a vaccine that will make you unhappy for a day or so afterwards.
Let me repeat: shingles is the most pain I have ever experienced in my life.
So PSA: if you qualify, get the shingles vaccine.
The unhappiness you feel for a day will make you grateful that you didn’t actually get shingles.