So one of the things I really wanted to do with this blog was to write a series of posts about things that nobody ever talks about regarding pregnancy, infertility, and childbirth. It’s always frustrated me that I can learn about all the ins and outs of reproduction and childrearing, but a lot of the apparently really common things I experienced are left out entirely; and so, I’m hoping to remedy that! This is
THINGS THEY DON’T TELL YOU: GALLBLADDER EDITION
I first started noticing the pain about seven months into my pregnancy, around the time I went from looking pregnant to looking like I was dying to be asked if I was expecting twins, apparently. The pain situated itself in my right side, around the bottom of my ribcage. Googling told me that such pain is common in late pregnancy as your body parts shift to make room for the growing denizen in your uterus, so I didn’t worry about it too much.
But not worrying didn’t mean I didn’t suffer. For the last two months of my pregnancy, I just could not get comfortable, even beyond the usual late pregnancy misery. The pain showed up late at night, and I always figured that it was just Sam punching upwards or kicking my ribs or something along those lines. I expected it would go away after I gave birth.
I ended up getting an induction at 40 weeks, 3 days, after noticing that Sam was moving less. I had a nonstress test the morning before my induction, and Sam passed with flying colors, but my liver enzyme levels were elevated, as was my blood pressure. My doctor didn’t see the point in waiting. “If we wait much longer, you may have to be induced anyway, so why risk it? Let’s take care of this now.” And so, Sam was born with just the right amount of fanfare and a labor that I’d describe as 99% perfect.
For the first several days after his birth, I was too tired to care about any discomfort I might have felt, either from my body putting itself back together or from trying to sleep in a hospital bed. Even when we got home, I functioned purely on survival mode for a month, sleeping when I could and not really noticing any discomfort beyond what seemed entirely normal to me. I couldn’t tell you, honestly, if the pain was still there in those days and even weeks. I was out of my head with busyness.
(with good reason)
By a month in, Kyle and I had worked out something of a schedule, and things were settling into a new normal. His parents were up visiting from Texas, meeting their grandson for the first time, and things seemed to be going pretty well. One night, Kyle made dinner for all of us–his most delicious, caloric, cholesterol-laden dish, taco pizza.
(not exactly this, but close)
As usual, the pizza was delicious, but that night, the pain showed up in my back again, the same spot as before. I assumed that it was just my body shifting back into its pre-baby position, but MAN did it hurt. And nothing touched the pain! I took extra-strength Tylenol and Aleve; I alternated between ice packs and heating pads; I slept on the couch watching a Robin Williams marathon so that I wouldn’t wake Kyle or the baby with my writhing. Finally, around 4 in the morning, the agony subsided and I fell into an exhausted sleep.
When I had a free moment the next day, I googled again. Once again, the results led me to believe that what I’d experienced was normal, that my body was just shifting back into place, that the pain would eventually subside.
The pain came again, shortly before my six week postpartum visit, and I brought it up with the doctor I saw–not my usual doctor, who was on paternity leave, but the doctor who delivered Sam. She told me it was perfectly normal and that some people kept having pain until at least six months postpartum. She said that I should notice the pain diminishing over time, and that it should be gone by that fall. That didn’t sound fun, but I still took her at her word and went home, preparing for more agony.
And sure enough, it came. It came twice more, the second time by far the most incredible pain I’ve ever experienced, including childbirth. That second time, around Sam’s third month of life, I’d spent the day in Newport with my family and enjoyed a dinner of pasta with alfredo sauce. Kyle and I took shifts during the night watching Sam, so that we could each get a good ~5 hours of uninterrupted sleep; I’d been sleeping during Kyle’s shift for about two hours when the pain hit. It started out as the usual discomfort around my right floating rib, but it quickly became something far worse. I felt the desperate need to evacuate everything in my body and made multiple trips to the toilet. I couldn’t lie down. I couldn’t stand up. I was in more pain than I’d ever experienced in my life.
(on a scale of 1-10, it was about a 300)
Around five or six in the morning, it started to subside, but I’d had enough. Kyle and I called my mother, and she came to the house to watch Sam; as soon as she arrived, we drove to our local urgent care clinic, and I had the first appointment of the morning.
I told the doctor about the pain, how long I’d been experiencing it, when it began, and so on. He sent me down for X-rays, just in case, but added that it sounded to him like I had a nasty case of gallstones and set up an appointment for me to get an ultrasound later that week for confirmation. Sure enough, lying in the same room where I’d learned that Sam was a boy, I learned that I had gallstones, hundreds of tiny ones that kept getting clogged in the duct that led to my liver. Those stones getting clogged caused the agony I’d felt; the ultrasound technician remarked that plenty of people thought they were having a heart attack when they got gallstones. I believed her.
Here was the funny thing, though: everyone who found out that I’d been pregnant before getting gallstones seemed unsurprised. “That’ll do it,” said the doctor, the ultrasound tech, the surgeon, the nurse who took my blood a week before surgery, the OR nurses who took care of me before and after the operation. As it turns out, pregnancy frequently causes gallstones–something about the excess estrogen in the bloodstream. Gallstones can cause elevated liver enzyme levels–something my obstetrician had suspected were caused by intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy–and it’s entirely possible they were causing me that pain and discomfort even before Sam was born.
And I had no idea! None of the websites or books I read ever mentioned anything about gallstones as something that could happen during or after pregnancy, even though they’re incredibly common. It was just so weird to me, and I wish I’d known about their likelihood beforehand. I might have been a little more mindful of my pain and a little less likely to dismiss it as “just normal pregnancy discomfort.”
I really have no idea how to wrap this up except by saying that if you have a gallbladder and have recently been pregnant, be mindful of any pain or discomfort you experience, and don’t write it off as “just postpartum pain.” If you’re experiencing pain that wakes you up, that keeps you from sleeping, that won’t go away no matter what you do, call your doctor and insist that they take you seriously. Nobody should live in pain if they don’t have to.