Walking around with a time bomb in my gut

Normally I reserve this space for techie topics, feel free to skip this post if you’re not interested in personal blogging. Or skip to the end for two points about Twitter, Facebook and Google.

Three weeks ago I found out I had a time bomb in my gut. The timer on this metaphorical bomb wasn’t set to an exact hour, and there were no ominous red digits ticking down, but my viscera were rigged on a hair trigger. My gall bladder was filled with stones, and it was just a matter of time before they would be ejected, painfully squeezing down my bile duct. With luck they would jam their way through and into my duodenum, but some could back up into pancreas, causing pancreatitis, or create a blockage and infection, cholangitis.

This was actually a good thing. After an all-night stomach ache over the weekend I went to work on Monday and met my wife and her brother (an NP and MD, respectively) for lunch. They noticed that I was turning yellow, eyes-first. Something like this:

Turning yellow isn’t all bad – I could defeat the Green Lantern in a super hero battle and as my friend Jessica pointed out on Facebook, I no longer needed to use the sepia filter in Photoshop to make myself look old-timey. Jaundice has a number of possible causes, and gall stones are definitely one of the more agreeable ones. An ultrasound turned up the stones in my gall bladder, a series of blood tests helped rule out other causes, and an MRI found the stones already stuck in the biliary duct.

A quick word about the MRI, since I had never had one before – getting an MRI is like being stuck inside a particularly tedious Atari game. The sounds are straight up Yar’s Revenge, though instead of flying a spaceship you are stuck in a tube. Something like this:

I had an ERCP and a laparoscopic gall bladder removal scheduled for the following week. As surgeries go these are very agreeable. Unlike my father 30-some years ago, I would not need to have my abdomen cut open for a cholecystectomy, but instead they would make three small cuts, insert instruments, and pull out my gall bladder. Something like this:

So, back to that time bomb. I had an ERCP scheduled for Tuesday and the actual removal for Friday. My job was to eat small, extremely low-fat meals so as not to trigger the release of bile and otherwise wait it out hoping to make it to the first procedure before the timer ran out. My life was becoming the most boring season of 24 ever conceived.

How had I gone so long without symptoms? It turns out, I hadn’t. For a few months I had been getting stomach pressure and pain, but it always cleared up within 20 minutes of taking normal, over-the-counter simethicone so I didn’t think it was a big deal. I already eat a diet pretty close to what they put me on while waiting, very low fat, usually small meals, lots of veggies and grains. On an average diet, I guess I would have been in pain constantly. I had been getting spells of fatigue as well but tiredness is a hard thing to pin down – tired after lunch at work? Must be low blood sugar. Tired in the morning? Must not have slept well.

On Sunday my time ran out. I started to feel the same kind of pressure I had the week before and called the on-call GI doc. He said to give it a little while to see if it would die down. It didn’t, so he got me pre-admitted and my wife drove me to the hospital.

There’s one thing I will never understand about hospitals, and that’s why they are so universally difficult to navigate. Stanford is a prime example, starting with finding your way to the right parking lot and entrance. Between the two of us we could not find the way to admitting. We ended up going to the ER (that was well marked, at least) to ask directions to admitting. I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about the usability of websites, but what about the usability of street signs and floor plans?

By this point I was in the worst pain of my life, and about to confront another thing I will never understand – the entire legal profession. As I sat in a wheelchair, shaking from pain, the (otherwise very nice and helpful) woman at the desk started handing me forms to sign. At that point, I would have signed anything! The Declaration of Independence, my own death warrant, hell, if she would have handed me a 1951 Bowman rookie card I would have signed “Mickey Mantle.” How could that possibly be considered necessary or valid?

Once in the hospital, everything went smoothly and I really am doing well in recovery. Sitting in the bed between procedures my anxiety about my gall bladder was put in its place – both of the roommates I had were in much worse shape than I ever was. So though I felt like I was walking around with a time bomb, and I wouldn’t wish gall stone pain on anyone, and surgery is never fun to look forward to, I spent a few days mostly feeling thankful I didn’t have something much worse.

Which brings me to my final two points, which are probably more interesting to the regular readers of this blog than my personal episode of ER:

First, this whole episode has really reminded me how connected we all are. I sent out status updates here and there via Twitter, Facebook, etc. and got back a lot of great replies from friends and family. It’s the same thing we discovered when our daughter was born– with social networking it’s remarkably easy to let a lot of people know a little about what’s going on in your life.

Second, some things about working at Google still astound me, even after two years. When you see Google on TV you hear about the food, the dinosaur, the marble track, but you miss out on the most important difference working at Google compared to other companies – people actually want to be there.

It sounds simple but it has strange effects. I have never been out sick for this long in my life, but have had absolutely no pressure to return to work from my managers or co-workers. No ticking clock of sick-day PTO hours, no calls, no expectations of keeping up with email, just good wishes and advice to make sure I’m really recovered before I head back. And yet here I sit, really wanting to go in tomorrow so I can work on X and Y and see what’s been going on with Z.

In a sense I feel a little bad for the folks who go to Google straight from college, if only because they don’t have anything to compare it to. In other jobs you might be wary to even mention the nature of any health problems you’ve had, coming in sick to not risk adverse consequences. Here, I’m writing about surgery for the world to read. I got to watch the recent health care reform vote out of policy interest rather than, as so many others must have, watching in the desperate hope of getting coverage. I’m pretty damn lucky.