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Skeptical Sunday: Lucky to be Alive

August 29, 2010

I had intended, with the conclusion of my work on PIRANHA 3D, to take more time to write on the blog and work on personal projects. But I concluded my final day (or to be precise, an all-nighter graveyard shift) on the project with a trip to the hospital for terrible stomach pain. Though I might have tried to ride out the pain usually, I had just signed up for health insurance the month before and was covered for the first time in four years, and I decided I might as well make use of it. I was diagnosed with gastritis and sent home with a prescription for a powerful antacid and some generic Vicodin for the pain.

About a week later — having been told to stay away from spicy or acidic food for the next few weeks — I was drinking a milkshake when I was hit with such a sudden and intense pain in my abdomen that I thought my appendix might have ruptured. I called an ambulance and was whisked to the hospital and examined.

Brian, my roommate, had his gallbladder out 3 or 4 years ago after a protracted series of gallstone attacks that took some time to be identified. When I let him know I was in the hospital and described my experience to him, he advised me to insist upon an ultrasound exam to check for gallstones, as this is not standard procedure and, if I had gallstones, it would take some time for them to diagnose it via the normal process.

After some hemming and hawing — I don’t know why they were so hesitant — the hospital staff gave me an ultrasound and discovered that I did, in fact, have gallstones. Unlike kidney stones, you can’t simply let gallstones pass out of your body; if they pass out of the gallbladder, they can either block the bile duct or get into the pancreas, causing even worse trouble. And they can’t be broken up by ultrasound like kidney stones, either. The only option is surgery.

The milkshake attack occurred on Wednesday, the 11th. I got in touch with a surgeon that Friday (the 13th) and scheduled an appointment for the following Monday. At that appointment, he advised me of what I said above: that surgery was pretty much the only way to solve the problem, and specifically to remove the gallbladder, not just the stones (the gallbladder would just produce more). That I could opt not to go with surgery if I chose, and might go weeks or months or years without an attack — or one could come that afternoon.

The attack had left some lingering pain but it was actually improving steadily. Nonetheless, I never wanted to experience that kind of pain again if I could help it, so I opted for the surgery. The surgeon was initially concerned that there might be residual inflammation of the gallbladder or liver, which would complicate surgery, and thought we should schedule for this coming week (the week of the 30th), as he would be out of town the week of the 23rd. But considering that the pain was subsiding, and he had an opening on Friday the 20th, he went ahead and scheduled me for the morning of the 20th.

I had the surgery as planned on the 20th, a day when I actually had no abdominal paint to speak of. Had there been no complications, I would have been out of the hospital that afternoon, with three small incisions healing in my gut (the surgery was laproscopic, a minimaly-invasive procedure involving fiber optic cameras and tools on long rods, instead of full-open) and a bottle of pain pills.

But there were complications.

As they discovered when they went in, the gallbladder was not only still badly inflamed, it was perforated, leaking infected fluid into my stomach cavity. This is, as you will find if you Google “perforated gallbladder,” a life-threatening condition. After briefly considering going to a full-open surgery, the surgeon decided he could complete the surgery in a minimally-invasive manner, and I awoke with the three expected incisions, an unexpected Jackson-Pratt drain, and a weekend in the hospital instead of an afternoon discharge. The drain came out and I was discharged from the hospital last Sunday, and have spent the week convalescing and getting as much rest as possible.

That first night in the hospital, I didn’t get much sleep. An hour at a time here and there. It wasn’t so much the pain, though there was a bit of that. It was more that I’d just gotten a lot of sleep during the surgery and I wasn’t sleepy, though I was certainly tired. But it gave me a lot of time to think about how lucky I was to be alive.

If I had not finally signed up for health insurance a mere month before the attack came on, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the hospital but tried to endure the pain, being unable to afford treatment. And the pain would have subsided, because my gallbladder would have been perforated, relieving the pressure causing the pain but endangering my life. I probably would have died.

If Brian had not previously had to suffer through the same illness, the hospital might not have discovered that my gallbladder was infected until well after the perforation made the pain unbearable, at which point they probably would have found it and done an emergency surgery. I might have died.

If the surgeon had gone with his original instinct to delay the surgery, the infected gallbladder might have advanced to a critical point before the scheduled date, and I might have died.

There’s a lot of luck in the fact that I’m sitting here, with three incisions and a hole healing itchily in the skin of my belly and the need for an occasional codeine pill; rather than still in the hospital, doped on morphine for the pain of the great big incision they sliced through skin and muscle to open me up; rather than dead and gone.

But there’s also a lot of contributing factors to my road back to health that have nothing to do with luck whatsoever.

It’s nothing to do with luck or superstition that the ultrasound machine they used to find the gallstones works consistently and reliably.

It’s nothing to do with luck or superstition that the doctors at the hospital were able to systematically rule out other possibilities for what was causing my symptoms and eventually come upon the one that was.

It’s nothing to do with luck or superstition that the medical instruments and procedures used to perform my surgery allowed the surgery — even with the complications — to be successfully performed.

It’s true that I am very, very lucky to live in a time when these procedures and tools have been invented and around so long such that they are essentially routine. And it’s true that medical science sometimes makes mistakes and if not for a series of fortunate events, I still might have died.

But I can tell you some circumstances in which I certainly would have died:

  • If I had trusted only to intercessory prayer to heal me, or gone to a faith healer at a big dramatic tent revival;
  • If I had gone to a homeopath or naturopath, put my life in the hands of sugar pills or multivitamin treatments;
  • If I had gone after acupuncture, acupressure, aromatherapy, herbal teas, or other “holistic” medicines;
  • If I had travelled to the Philippines for psychic surgery;
  • If I had delayed my search for a surgeon because searching on Friday the 13th would be “unlucky;”
  • If I had assumed that the fact that I was in less pain automatically meant I was getting better;
  • If I had believed myself possessed of evil spirits and directed my energy toward rituals to cast them out;
  • If I had just focused on positive thoughts, expecting the law of attraction to reward me summarily with a clean bill of health;
  • Et cetera, et cetera.

I often see the woo-peddlers and god-botherers alike accusing skeptics like me of “naturalism” or “materalism,” presuming — as they do with other -isms such as socialism, communism, and indeed atheism — that I will automatically share and understand their aversion to these things. But no god came to my rescue when my insides oozed poison. No positive thoughts removed the infected flesh or drained the fluid. It wasn’t a consultation with spirits or tarot cards that told the surgeon where to look and what to do.

It was the scientific method which led to the discovery of my illness, my propensity for rationality which informed how I wanted to have it treated, science-based medicine and investigation which led to the tools and procedures that ultimately saved my life. It was an historical unwillingness by doctors and scientists to resort to supernatural explanations, a pigheaded refusal to throw up their hands and say “I dunno, it must be magic,” that has made my recovery possible.

I have not fully recovered yet — as I said, I still have wounds to heal and pills to swallow — but I will, and so quickly that fifty years ago it would probably have been considered miraculous.

Science works, bitches. And I can now literally say that I am living proof.

  1. AMEN to that brotha !! Praise the LORD !

    But kidding a side ,glad to hear you are on the road to recovery !!! …

  2. I had no idea you were so close to death’s door (or is it a river?). Good to hear you’re doing better. We’ve never met personally but I certainly would feel a loss if you were no longer here. Get back to 100% soon.

  3. A very interesting account. Glad you came through it OK.

  4. Hecmar Jayam permalink

    Woah, Michael…

    I hope you are fully recovered from all this unfortunate ordeal by now.

    And while I mostly agree with all your arguments supporting the value and reliability of modern science, one would think that after an experience like this (close to death and all that), this post would be a bit more optimistic and appreciative of life… not as an argument against people with “other” beliefs… (Personally, I’m as skeptic as Richard Dawkins).

    Still, it’s great to know a talented person like you is still around and will be able to continue amazing us with his creativity and hard work…

    Best Wishes.

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