CW: illness, pain, hospitals, health uncertainty, cancer discussions, images of hospital rooms and equipment, and a fair amount of panic and crying on my part. As far as being unwell, not knowing why you are unwell, worrying that you are really unwell, and going through major medical stuff is concerned, this post has some pretty heavy paragraphs. Everything turned out well in the end, but please do take heed of these warnings before reading.
What ho, Fatshion Hustlers!
And here we are, at the climax of My Acute Illness Story. Finally you will find out what it was that caused my pain and misery, as well as what was done to fix it. Are you ready for me to finally uncover the answers in this dramatic tale? If so, read on.
It was quite late in the evening when I was taken up to the ward. I was put to bed straight away, only to be disturbed from my already fitful slumber to have my vital signs checked, to be given painkillers, and to have an IV drip put in. So far, so standard. I was then woken up at around 6am for another round of vital sign checking.
The next couple of days (from that Saturday morning until the Tuesday morning) were, without a doubt, the worst days of this whole ordeal. I was doing pretty well pain-wise (they had me on new antibiotics, and my pain medication was being well regulated), but the fear and uncertainty I felt during that time was so pronounced and so frequently exacerbated by the comings and goings of the hospital, just thinking about it now gives me the chills.
When I was initially admitted, it was believed that my problem was something to do with my appendix, and that I would probably eventually need some sort of surgery as a result. I was therefore admitted as a General Surgery patient. Doctors of varying degrees of seniority came to see me several times on the Saturday, with each of them asking me to tell my story up until that point. I felt like a broken record before too long. I was also not allowed to eat until that evening, which probably goes some way towards explaining my bad mood.
On the Sunday morning, I was seen by a senior doctor in General Surgery (you could tell he was senior, because he was wearing a white coat) and several of his junior doctors (all in blue scrubs). The senior doctor asked me yet again for my story and I provided it, wondering at that point why on Earth it never seemed to occur to these people to write this shit down. He felt around and said a bunch of worrying stuff about how my appendix might be all gummed up at this stage and that it could be hard to tell what exactly was wrong. He ordered a CT scan, which was to be done later that afternoon. The team of doctors left as abruptly as they came, leaving me sitting there and feeling fragile.
I was a bit worried about the CT scan. Mainly, I was concerned that it was going to be the machine that’s like a full body tube. I’d heard horror stories of people becoming really claustrophobic in the tube, and panicking and forgetting about the help button they are given to press if needed while they’re in there. It turns out I needn’t have worried – it was the one that’s shaped like a big doughnut. The radiologist even covered my boobs with a shield thing, to limit my exposure to the radiation. I thought that was a nice touch.
I was eventually taken back to my room (with emphasis on the word ‘eventually’ – I spent ages waiting in the cold corridor for a porter to take me back). I was then visited later in the afternoon by yet another doctor, who told me that the CT scan revealed that all of my organs appeared to be in good working order (hurrah!) except for my right ovary, attached to which there was an enlarged cyst.
‘An enlarged cyst?’ I repeated.
‘Yes. It’s 20cm long,’ she answered. ‘We’ll need to take it out.’
I had entertained the possibility of My Acute Illness being caused by some sort of ovarian cyst issue before. As a woman with PCOS, it is reasonable to assume that ovarian cysts are one of those things I will have to deal with from time to time. I thought that perhaps a cyst had ruptured or something. But a cyst that had grown to 20cm was not something I had thought possible, and I felt a familiar wave of worry wash over me as this new information forced itself into my brain. As the doctor left, my parents entered the room for visiting hours to find me crying.
‘It’s OK Gillian,’ my mother assured me. ‘Now they know what it is, and it’s not something really bad.’
‘It’s 20cm, though,’ I managed to choke out. ‘What if it’s cancerous?’
The ‘could this be cancer?’ theme was one that would plague me frequently throughout the next couple of days. Every doctor who came to see me told me the same thing: ‘When we operate on you, we’ll be taking the tissues to the labs to be tested for cancer. It is highly unlikely to be cancerous, but we cannot rule it out’. This, in turn, always left me in a horrible mess of crying and panic, because nobody was concretely able to tell me one way or the other, and I was not coping at all well with the uncertainty. One doctor told me that some of my symptoms (most notably the inflammation) could not be adequately explained by the presence of the enlarged cyst alone, which suggested that there was something else going on that was being missed. As he mused, he said things like ‘It’s unlikely to be ovarian cancer at your age. Could it be a rarer kind of cancer? Yeah, but that’s still really unlikely…’ I actually quite liked that doctor (it helped that he was pretty cute), and he left my room telling me that whatever was going on, they would figure it out, which was nice of him. But it was not nearly certain enough for me.
I am not sure how I would have gotten through all of that panic, and worry, and fear, were it not for the nurses on the ward. There were several times during those few days when a nurse would be walking past my room, and they would notice me sitting there, crying. Every single time they saw this, they stopped, came in, asked me if I was all right, and held my hand as I got what I needed to say off my chest.
We talk so much about the time and dedication that doctors put towards looking after their patients, and I would not for one second attempt to downplay the role that doctors play. But the nurses were the ones who truly impressed me during my stay. The doctors were there to diagnose me, take my blood, deliver any news, and do the fixing. The nurses were the ones left to maintain my well-being; to feed me, to make sure I took my meds, to change my bedding, to give me hot drinks, and to provide me with kindness when I really, really needed it. As I said to one of those nurses several days later, ‘I have always felt that all the NHS staff do an incredible job, and my stay here has only confirmed that’.
Meanwhile, after discovering that my problem was to do with my reproductive organs, I was switched from the General Surgery department to Gynaecology. As I was being taken care of by incredible nurses while my brain played out worst-case-scenarios, the gynos were working behind to scenes to determine the best course of action to take.
On Monday I had to have an ultrasound done, which was awful because I had to go through the major discomfort of a full bladder for it, only to be told that the full bladder probably wasn’t even needed for that particular scan. The purpose of the scan was to work out what was in the cyst. The results showed that it was mainly liquid (blood or some such), but there was solid matter in there as well (which I’m assuming was fat or coagulated blood or similar).
The presence of the solid matter, combined with the size of the cyst, led the doctors to decide that I would need a laparotomy, which is fancy medical language for ‘open surgery done by cutting open my abdomen’. On Tuesday morning (10/1/2017) a doctor came in to tell me this, adding that they weren’t sure if the surgery would be happening today or on a later date, but that I shouldn’t eat anything today just in case. I think I was a bit disappointed, because the day’s menu had sounded nice.
It turned out that the surgery was to happen later that day. I was visited by a doctor with a permission form that detailed what they would be removing (the cyst, the attached ovary, the attached fallopian tube, my appendix, some fluid, and some belly fat, with the latter three being taken out mainly so they could be tested for nasties) and explained that I would be under a general anaesthetic for the duration of the operation (to which my line of thinking was, well, I’d ruddy well hope so. Could you imagine being conscious while all of those bits of you were being pulled out?) I signed the form and spent most of the afternoon thinking about what was about to happen. After all, this was major surgery. I’d have a massive scar at the end of it, as well as only one ovary and no appendix. It was bizarre to think about. Hell, it’s still bizarre to think about, as I sit here writing about it weeks later.
I was wheeled down to the operating theatre at around 4:30pm. I remember going into a preparation room, where about four different people hovered around me, hooking me up to various monitors, putting the anaesthetic into my IV drip, and applying an oxygen mask to my face. I concentrated on breathing slowly in and out, and looked at the pretty artwork on the ceiling.
The next thing I knew, I was waking up in a recovery bay. I remember being desperate for a drink of water, and that there was a kindly woman sitting next to me. I had wires sticking out of my front, a strange buzzing box connected to a bandage below my navel, other wires attached to a button that was programmed to give me morphine when pressed, a catheter (which felt bizarre), another IV drip on my other hand, and a long white bandage running down the centre of my stomach, under which I knew there would be a long, red scar. They also put one of those oxygen tube thingies in my nose, just to make sure I’d be getting enough of that sweet, life-sustaining air inside me. After a couple of hours I was wheeled back to my room. I felt tired, groggy, and pleasantly calm. After all, the worst was now over.
The next morning, after I’d been fed, watered, and medicated, a doctor came in and told me what they had found. It turned out that the cyst had managed to twist itself four times over while inside me, blocking all sorts of blood supplies and causing massive amounts of redness and discomfort in the surrounding areas.
‘Well, that explains all the inflammation,’ I said.
‘It certainly does,’ the doctor answered. ‘But it’s out now, and all the signs are looking good for you to make a full recovery.’
Mum told me afterwards that she reckoned the surgeons would have opened me up, seen how twisted the cyst was, and all collectively exclaimed ‘No wonder!’
My next post (which I shall dub ‘The Epilogue’) will be about the rest of my stay, as well as my continued recovery at my parent’s house in the Cotswolds. If you are at all interested in reading about ongoing boredom, a need for two-hour naps after simple trips to the supermarket, and the peaceful comfort one can find in good TV shows and crochet projects, stay tuned.