Pretty much everyone knows that having a baby can be a painful, potentially traumatic, and dramatic experience. What I didn’t know before having my son this past year was just how many other things can go wrong. I knew about the scary things that could happen with pregnancy and birth, but I hadn’t thought about what might happen afterwards. I had gallstones after delivering my son, and it's one of the more common (due to the extra progesterone that comes with pregnancy) post-delivery "complications." After a hellish labor that eventually ended in a c-section and a healthy baby, I expected my body to slowly heal and recover. Instead I experienced more pain, fear, and ultimately a second surgery. I had no idea that that was a thing that might happen, and I was completely unprepared.
According to Web MD, gallstones are pieces of solid material that form in the gallbladder. Sometimes stones form and there are no symptoms, but other times they cause severe abdominal pain, and they can travel to the bile ducts surrounding the gallbladder and irritate other organs. In my case, it was excruciatingly painful, even in comparison to labor. My official diagnosis was "gallstone pancreatitis," and it was bad enough that the only viable treatment option was to have my gallbladder surgically removed. Only problem was, I didn’t know it at the time.
About two weeks after my c-section delivery I was on my way to the hospital for a follow-up appointment with my doctor when I noticed a weird tightness in my upper abdomen. This was not a follow-up appointment I was particularly looking forward to to begin with because my incision had become infected, been reopened and cleaned, and now my doctors wanted to check on its progress. I was a ball of nerves. I assumed that the straight sensation (like someone was squeezing my ribs) was panic-related, and by the time I was in the OB-GYN's office, I’d forgotten all about it. It had been painful, but it seemed like such a small thing compared to everything else, and anyways, I had a newborn to care for. I could handle it. Because I had forgotten about the weird pains, I didn’t mention it.
I was petrified to leave him, and started to say that I couldn’t go anywhere without him. The paramedics were clearly exasperated, and then they offered an ultimatum: "Look, you can take him, or the young lady [he gestured to my wife], but there’s only room for two."
A week after that, my wife and I were sitting down to dinner when it happened again. This time though, the pressure wrapped all the way around my back, and it was so bad that I felt like I couldn’t draw breath. I tried changing positions, but that only made it worse. Within minutes, I was sobbing and begging for help. My wife did the only thing that made any sense and dialed 911.
Our area is notorious for slow emergency response, but the ambulance was there within 15 minutes. As soon as the paramedics came in, I felt exposed and terrified. I was in my pajamas in my messy bedroom with my brand new baby, and I had no idea what was going to happen. The pains had slowed down, but they were still there. One of them looked at my son, laying on the bed. He said:
They just left me there, scared, covered in milk, dizzy, and in pain, in a dirty hospital room. It was humiliating and dehumanizing.
At the time my son was less than three weeks old, and we’d never been separated. On top of that, I was breastfeeding exclusively and while I had pumped and frozen some milk, it wasn’t much, and he had literally never taken a bottle. I was petrified to leave him, and started to say that I couldn’t go anywhere without him. The paramedics were clearly exasperated, and then they offered an ultimatum: "Look, you can take him, or the young lady [he gestured to my wife], but there’s only room for two."
After much crying and discussion of the risk of taking a newborn to an emergency room full of very sick people, I agreed to call my mother-in-law to come take care of our son. Then I climbed into the back of the ambulance, and they drove to the nearest ER. Because the hospital where my son was born was pretty far away, the paramedics took my wife and I to a local city hospital instead. We waited for hours in a hallway, then for hours in a waiting room, then finally they took us to a small room with a curtain for a door. The intensity of the pains faded after we arrived, but I was still extremely uncomfortable.
Eventually I received two ultrasounds, which confirmed that it was gallstones causing the problem. I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything in case they decided to operate on me then and there, but they didn’t hook me up to an IV either, so I only became more and more dehydrated. Within a couple of hours, my breasts began to leak, soaking my hospital gown, and speeding up the dehydration process. They did not offer me a clean gown or a breast pump. They just left me there, scared, covered in milk, dizzy, and in pain, in a dirty hospital room. It was humiliating and dehumanizing, and made me feel even more terrified, angry, and helpless.
A doctor finally came and told me that I would need surgery, but it didn’t have to be that night, I just needed it “eventually.” I asked if I could go home to my son, and he said they wanted to have some surgeons talk to me about my options first. We waited for hours. The surgeons never came. Finally, I demanded to be discharged.
After surgery I was prepared to be disoriented, but no one told me I’d be in excruciating pain. I screamed in agony, demanding to see my wife.
My wife and I spent the next week frantically looking for a doctor who could see me in a hurry to determine just how urgent my condition was, but no one could get me in. I didn’t have any more gallbladder attacks, so I thought maybe I could manage the condition with diet until I could get an appointment. I promised, though, that if I had another attack I’d go to the ER, only this time, I wanted to go somewhere else.
One week to the day of my first trip, I woke up at 3 in the morning doubled over in pain. It was worse than labor pains, and this time it just never went away. My wife was supposed to go to work that morning, but I knew that there was no way I could take care of an infant. So we made the trek to the one place I felt safe, the hospital where my son was born. It was a 45-minute drive, but it was totally worth it. And this time, we took our son with us.
We just happened to arrive on the busiest day in anyone’s memory, and after they checked my blood and determined that I was not, in fact, about to die, I had to wait. The hospital staff was incredibly sympathetic to me and my family’s needs and that made a huge difference. I fed my son, read a novel, and pretended to ignore the pain and fear that I felt. I was admitted the next under the premise that I wouldn’t be there long. Due to hospital overcrowding and more urgent surgical procedures, I ended up at the hospital for two whole days. My son had to go stay with his grandparents, where they had no choice but to give him formula. The reality broke my heart. I was so passionate about breastfeeding him, but I was so grateful that in an emergency such as this we had the option to rely on formula.
I desperately wanted to just get the whole ordeal over with and get home to my baby, but I was also terrified of the surgery that lie ahead. The idea of going completely “under” was terrifying, but I tried my best to stay calm. They made four small laparoscopic incisions, and completely removed my gallbladder. After surgery I was prepared to be disoriented, but no one told me I’d be in excruciating pain. I screamed in agony, demanding to see my wife. Everything was blurry from the pain. My body felt white hot. I was so angry, and I confess that I wasn’t very polite to the nurse. She told me that I would have to prove that I could eat some pudding before I could see my wife. I scarfed down the pudding.
I would not wish my experience on anybody, but afterwards I learned that having gallstones after birth is fairly common. After such a mess, I finally found myself at home, four weeks postpartum, healing from two surgeries instead of just one. Dealing with a major medical crisis with a newborn baby to care for was unlike anything I could have ever imagined. With the help of my friends, family, amazing partner, and great medical providers, I managed to get the care that I needed. I was able to resume breastfeeding my son right away, and now I’m happy and healthy. I realize how important my health truly is, not only for me, but for my kid, and I'm so glad I got the help that I did.