My husband, Rory, put his hand on my shoulder as I lay on the cold bathroom floor groaning. “What’s wrong?”
“I am having indigestion, again.”
“Teena, this is not indigestion. I’ve had indigestion all my life and never experienced this kind of pain.”
“It goes away when I take an antacid.”
“You need to go to the doctor.”
“Why? So, he can tell me to take antacids and send me home?”
My refusal dissuaded him from pursuing the matter, but I started a journal to record when I had pain and how long it lasted. A year later, the episodes were more frequent and lasted longer.
I discovered I had gallstones two years earlier. The doctor said the treatment is to remove the gallbladder, but they won’t do that unless the gallstones were giving me a problem. I was not having problems and forgot about it. My research revealed I had the symptoms of a gallbladder attack, so I told Rory I would make an appointment with the doctor.
We had already scheduled a trip to Disney for my grandson’s seventh birthday. And my recent success holding the attacks at bay with a healthier diet and apple cider vinegar made delaying the appointment until we returned reasonable. We left the first week in June and had a wonderful time with our grandson. God answered my prayers. Not one attack the entire week.
As the days slipped by without pain, thoughts of making an appointment with the doctor faded. The last Sunday in June, I returned home from church knowing something was wrong. Rory was working the weekend shift, so I called my son to bring me to an Urgent Care Clinic. Neither of us knew where to find one. He called his wife. She heard me screaming in pain and told him to bring me to the nearest emergency room. I remember vomiting, telling my son to call his Dad, and concern on the nurse’s face. I later learned they thought I was having a heart attack.
Rory arrived shortly before they admitted me to the hospital with Acute Gallstone Pancreatitis, and delirium. The next few days were blank. Rory told me the pain medication wore off before I could receive more, and the nurses could hear me screaming at their station located at the end of the hall. The doctors kept changing the medication, trying to manage my pain. I became incoherent, removed the IV, tried to leave the hospital, and fought with them when they stopped me. I earned a nanny camera, so hospital staff could monitor me.
The following Saturday, my son and his wife came to the hospital to give Rory a break from sleeping on a couch made of rocks too short for his six-foot stature. Sunday morning, he went to church. At the end of the service, Rory and an altar minister prayed God would restore my mind. He was on the way to his car when his cell phone rang, “Dad, come to the hospital. Mom just snapped out of the delirium.”
The doctor attempted to remove my gallbladder, but everything they touched with their instruments bled. They had no choice but to abort the surgery until the inflammation of my pancreas subsided. Over the next ten days, they treated everything that was treatable and sent me home with the disturbing truth ringing in my ears. A gallstone had caused the problem. They could not remove the gallbladder until my pancreas healed, and I could still have another gallbladder attack.
A week later, Rory brought me back to the emergency room in severe pain. This time they admitted me with a primary diagnosis of Necrotizing Pancreatitis. A gallstone had blocked the pancreas from releasing enzymes into the small intestine which caused the corrosive action of the enzymes to destroy normal pancreatic cells. Over the next eight days, they treated what they could and performed two endoscopic procedures to remove the dead tissue on my pancreas.
The doctor sent me home with pain medicine and the news that they admit some people to the hospital with my diagnoses that never go home. He had admitted three people to the hospital the day my son brought me to the emergency room. I was the only one discharged from the hospital. Unfortunately, the pancreas does not regenerate. The tissue I lost is gone forever.
As the seriousness of my condition dawned on me, a flood of love and prayers encouraged me. Not only my church, but other churches were praying for me. A pastor who was little more than an acquaintance came to the hospital to pray for me. A missionary from Cheer Up Missions came to my house with his guitar to serenade me and cheer me up. Then I saw a post on Facebook from a pastor in Africa asking people to pray Teena in Louisiana would get the operation she needed. To this day, I do not know how these Christians in Africa learned about me.
The prayers of these mostly faceless friends sustained Rory and me. As I struggled with pain, Rory added my jobs to his 12-hour work shifts. He cleaned the house, did the grocery shopping, took care of my hearing-impaired mother, and washed clothes and dishes.
We wondered, “How long, Lord? When will this end?” As I lay on my bed suffering with the never-ending pain, I often felt his hand on my arm and heard him praying for me. At night, he read the Bible to me until I fell asleep.
The heavens remained silent as I returned to the hospital three times in August for outpatient endoscopies to remove more dead tissue. An emergency room doctor admitted me to the hospital for pain in September, and again in October. My pancreas remained too inflamed for the doctor to remove my traitorous gallbladder that damaged my pancreas. I lost seventy pounds and 80% of my pancreas. Pain became my new normal and sapped my strength. A wheel chair became necessary.
Then a ray of light shined. My pancreas doctor showed Rory and me an image taken on my first admission to the hospital. He pointed to a big black spot on the pancreas. Then he showed us an image from the Cat Scan he recently ordered and pointed to a spot so tiny Rory and I could barely see it. “Make an appointment with your gallbladder doctor,” he said.
I was ecstatic. We went to the doctor expecting him to approve the surgery. As he talked, my joy deflated like air escaping from a pierced balloon. He did not think I was ready.
“Can I still have a gallbladder attack?”
“Yes,” he said.
“There is one thing that weighs heavy on my mind. If I have another gallbladder attack, I could end up back at square one, doing all of this all over again.”
He leaned back in his chair to ponder my comment. He knew the risk of delaying the surgery. Another gallbladder attack could have destroyed the rest of my pancreas. I could live without a pancreas, but only as a diabetic dependent on prescribed enzymes to digest food. He looked at me and said, “I will schedule the surgery.”
My doctor was right. I wasn’t healthy enough for the surgery. An operation that usually takes thirty minutes lasted three hours. The doctors involved in the surgery said it was messy and complicated.
The trauma to my body and months of liquid diets left me extremely weak. Rory had to bathe me. My hair fell out in handfuls. I could walk from my bed to a living room chair, but if I fell, I could not stand up. On one occasion, I had to crawl to the bedroom and awake Rory, so he could help me up.
With my husband’s encouragement, I regained strength by inches. “Start small,” he said. “Walk from the front door to the back door.” I did that for weeks, then added walking to another room until I could walk to every room in my house.
I went to the gym one time the last week of December 2019. Too weak to lift weights again, I walked the track. After the holidays, I went twice a week to walk or swim. But my attendance was sporadic and progress slow. Then I saw a flyer about a group class and signed up thinking a professional trainer would know what I needed, and a group would keep me motivated.
Lisa, the group fitness trainer, had bad news. I was the only one who signed up. I wanted the comradery of a group striving toward a common goal. I settled for personal training. A decision I never regretted. Lisa was a gift from God. We were the same age, which gave me confidence she understood what I needed. Her warm and friendly personality made her a joy to spend time with. She gave me tips on diet, like powdered peanut butter to add protein without the fat. She kept me motivated by inviting me to join her in the Spinning Class or swim laps with her at the pool. As she challenged me to exercise more, I grew stronger and worked harder and harder until she nicknamed me relentless.
Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12, NIV). I needed a doctor to remove my diseased gallbladder. If I had listened to my husband, a minor surgery that needed a few days recovery would have solved the problem, and I would still have all my pancreas.
The experience tested my endurance, but my faith in God remained strong. God never promised to make life easy. He promised we will survive. My stubbornness created my suffering, but “in all things God works for the good of those who love him” (Romans 8:28, NIV). My marriage is stronger. My love for Rory deeper. I’ve gained new friends. Lisa will always have a special place in my heart. The weight I had struggled for decades to lose after I gave birth to my sons is gone. Turning down junk food has become easy, because the cost of damaging the little pancreas I have left is too high.
I did more than survive. I survived as more than a conqueror. Less than a year after I returned to the gym, I could keep pace with Lisa in a Spinning Class. God “is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3:20 NKJ). Today, I am stronger and healthier than I have ever been.