I had surgery during a global pandemic

When I started this blog in October, dear Reader, I promised that it would be an academic cum personal blog. At the time of writing that first post, I was incredibly ill and underwent emergency surgery two weeks after it was published online. In fact, I posted my second post, ‘Women and Power, Part One‘, moments before getting in a taxi to go back to the hospital for MRI scans, more blood work, and more consultations with the surgeon. I should say, I do not endorse this sort of life/work balance and I only continued to keep the blog going in October with the fear of precarity as an ECR weighing down on me. If I could go back in time, I would have been gentler with myself and allowed myself the space and time to heal mentally and physically from my surgery without pressuring myself to keep up my academic persona. This was the motivation behind my hiatus during the festive period. Here, I want to reflect on the importance of listening to your body during the PhD and advocating for yourself and your health.

30 October 2020

I had an emergent laparoscopic cholecystectomy with bile duct exploration. What this means in non-medical speak is I had my gallbladder along with four gallstones from my bile duct removed by keyhole surgery. It was a success. However, I experienced minor complications, namely, inflammation of the cartilage around my rib cage, which kept me in hospital for two nights for pain management and is an issue I’m still coping with when I overexert myself. A good, if painful, lesson on listening to my body and resting when I need to. My surgery was the conclusion of months, if not years of pain, that was ignored and diminished by myself and my doctors as ‘PhD stress’.

A pre-surgery lewk. You’re welcome, internet.

July 2017

I had my first gallstone attack while I was home in North Carolina visiting my family for a short ‘break’. I put ‘break’ in inverted commas here because even though I was away from my home university, I was still putting myself under extreme pressure to continue to work on my thesis as I entered my final years as a PhD researcher. At the time, I dismissed the pain as muscle spasms, since they were confined to my mid-back, right shoulder, and rib cage. As a varsity long-distance swimmer in high school, I had an old shoulder injury, which I assumed was the root of the cause of the pain exacerbated by the discomfort of international travel with heavy suitcases. Over the next few years, I had a few more attacks, which I easily dismissed as stress-induced indigestion, assuming the obvious cause of my physical symptoms was the PhD. I would continue to blame my physical symptoms of illness as ‘PhD stress’ well into 2020 when I was working toward my thesis submission.

March 2020

I began to have gallbladder attacks 3-4 times a week. I convinced myself that it was merely a correlation between these episodes, the stress of submission and the stress of submission during a global pandemic. I assumed that the symptoms would disappear as soon as I hit send on my email to college with my thesis enclosed.

Dear Reader, they did not.

April 2020

I had an attack every night after I submitted and by the Thursday I finally deemed myself ill enough to phone my GP. Maybe it’s an ulcer. Maybe it’s acid reflux. The GP was quick to dismiss these symptoms, suggesting they were probably caused by my stress levels (and weight – still unimpressed about being fat-shamed in 2020!) and she prescribed an acid reducer and told me not to call back unless the symptoms had not improved. The symptoms didn’t improve. I called back in two weeks time and was assured that acid reflux symptoms could be ‘quite painful’ while she ordered more tests. I won’t bore you with the minutiae of the next few months, but needless to say, the tests were inconclusive, I started to feel marginally better and I assumed that we had gotten to the root of the problem.

25 September 2020

I was done with the PhD. Doctored. My stress levels were relatively minimal. I was back at work in the restaurant I work at part-time. I had been offered teaching for the autumn semester. Life was pretty good all things considered. That night in September, my partner made one of his signature pasta dishes (meatballs and mushrooms), full of creamy, cheesy, goodness. What came next was the longest and worst gallstone attack of my life. It lasted 18 hours and it was still 2 days more before I started to feel anything approaching ‘normal’. As I no longer had a PhD to blame my symptoms on and it happened immediately following a fatty meal, the cause was more obvious. More tests were ordered. My blood work came back slightly abnormal. I was still too young to cause much worry about complications from gallstone disease, so I attended an ultrasound scan. The radiologist confirmed I had gallstones. I had another attack that day, likely caused by the agitation of my gallbladder during the scan. Having finally had an attack during business hours, the GP was able to see me and quickly decided I needed to go to hospital. I spent the next week in and out of the hospital for more tests and finally the MRI scan, which confirmed that I had four gallstones in my bile duct, which made my case emergent as I was at risk of the duct rupturing, causing serious complications. I was incredibly lucky that within five weeks of my major gallbladder attack (likely when the stones moved into the duct) that I was having surgery to remove it.

Dear Reader, the irony is not lost on me that while I was starting a blog titled ‘An Errant Academic’ errant gallstones had simultaneously gone for a wander and were wreaking havoc on my health and my body.

Two of the four unexpected body modifications of 2020. Here’s to 2021 seeing a return to more fun body mods, like a new tattoo or piercing.

This health crisis taught me a few things.

  1. It is frustrating that initially I had to continually advocate for myself to my GP in April when my symptoms became increasingly unmanageable. I hope that telling a woman she is probably just fat and stressed will no longer be an appropriate ‘diagnosis’ someday.
  2. I dismissed my own symptoms and wrote them off as ‘PhD stress’. ‘PhD stress’ and its physical manifestations should never be normalised. Maybe it’s not entirely healthy to blame all physical discomfort as ‘just’ the PhD. Maybe, more importantly, the fact that the PhD can take such priority and exact such a toll on physical and well-being ought to be interrogated.
  3. The NHS is a beautiful, wonderful thing. As an American, I had several friends from the US reach out to express their sympathies that in an already difficult year I had to face unexpected medical costs. I was happy to tell them that I hadn’t gone into debt by getting sick. Something that is far too common in the American healthcare system.

I am incredibly lucky that I was able to have surgery during a global pandemic, as weird as it sounds. It saved my life. Now to listen to my body more in the future and honour it by not allowing the expectations of my academic persona to overtake my mental and physical well-being.