Uncle Mark’s Emergency Surgery

Niew amsterdam

A tip for cruise ship travelers: the fastest way to disembark is to have a medical emergency.

I know, because that’s how our Caribbean cruise ended. Once we called 911 from our stateroom, the Holland America crew took swift action: wheeling me to the infirmary, getting an initial diagnosis from the on-board doctor, clearing us through customs and immigration, and speeding me off the ship and into a waiting ambulance.

As EMTs shoved the gurney into the emergency vehicle, I caught one last glimpse of the Nieu Amsterdam, which, from my lying-down-and-looking-up perspective, looked impossibly tall. Seven or eight stories up, a large woman with brown hair was standing on her veranda, staring down at the spectacle. Her white t-shirt rippled in the sea breeze. She took a deep drag on her cigarette, let out a long stream of gray smoke, and turned away.

* * * * *


For the record, my emergency was a gallbladder attack. It works like this: in some people, particularly those people given to consuming whole baskets of fried chicken and entire chocolate cakes, gall and cholesterol crystalize in the gallbladder, forming what look like highly-polished chips of jade. During the attack, a stone — about the size of a piece of gravel — plugs the tiny duct, causing the sort of pain one would expect if one were trying to pass a twelve-pound quartz crystal through one’s urethra.

You can collect these stones for a while, as I did, with little or no problem. For more than a year, though, I’ve been aware of a heaviness in my lower right side. Sometimes, it felt like a stitch in my side; other times, it felt like an object, about the size of a baby’s fist, pressing against my ribs.

Four or five times in the past year, I’ve been awakened by sharp pain in that spot, as though the food moving through the pipes were dragging against an obstruction on the way down. The pain, while sharp, would keep me up for only an hour or so before subsiding, and, because it was accompanied by bloating and gas, I dismissed it as a particularly painful form of indigestion.

About two weeks ago, I had a very painful attack, complete with chills and vomiting. It left me sore and stressed for a week afterward, and that prompted me to make an appointment to see my doctor and start the long process of getting an ultrasound, having blood work done, and scheduling the organ’s removal. But I foolishly convinced myself that an aggressive week at work and an upcoming vacation were more important than seeing to my own good health … and so, I put the appointments off until after our cruise.

In retrospect: that was the worst possible decision I could have made.

* * * * *


I expected to get surgery as soon as we reached the hospital. It doesn’t work that way. Here’s why: before removing the gall bladder, doctors have to be sure there isn’t a stone lodged in any of the ductwork. (If there were, removing the bladder would do nothing to relieve the pain, and surgeons would have to go back in for a second procedure soon after the first.)

So, first, doctors scheduled me for a process that involves sedating the victim, forcing a camera down his throat, through his stomach, and into the intestine, and taking a peek at the gallbladder’s neighborhood. But as soon as they put me on the table for the process, my oxygen levels dropped suddenly, and I started smothering, so the process was aborted.

Next, they scheduled me for an MRI — my first. I had read that MRIs are difficult for claustrophobics, and now I understand why. The MRI machine is like a cross between the world’s smallest airplane cabin and a coffin: a long, tight, plastic, roaring, harshly lit tube just large enough to squeeze a human into. The roof of the thing was less than a fraction of an inch from the tip of my nose. Helpful technicians gave me headphones (so I could hear their instructions over the banging and buzzing of the machine) and a rubber squeeze ball (to signal them if I panicked and needed to be yanked out).

I closed my eyes, took deep breaths, and retreated to the safest, calmest place I could imagine: lying in bed at home with Clyde. The process took twenty minutes. I didn’t have to stop it once — but especially as the air in the tube began to heat up during the last five minutes, it was very, very hard to keep myself from kicking, bucking, and screaming, “Get me out! Get me out! It’s microwaving meeeeeeee!”

Good news: no blockages. With that out of the way, they scheduled the surgery for the next day.

Because I couldn’t have anything in my stomach for any of these procedures, I wound up going without food or water for three full days. On the bright side, I surpassed all my weight loss goals for the month. It is not, however, a plan I recommend anyone adopt.

* * * * *


The surgery took just over an hour, and is a marvel of modern medical technology. There is only one small incision, in the navel. Through this, the patient is inflated with an inert gas, making him look a bit like a character in a Dickens novel: four spindly limbs protruding from a tight, spherical body. Through the same tiny hole, the surgeon inserts spindly instruments; like a puppeteer, he snips out the gallbladder, sutures the site, and extracts the inflamed organ through the navel, all by remote control. Deflate the patient, plug the hole with super glue, and it’s off to recovery.

I’m pleased and surprised to report I’ve had remarkably little pain. Soreness, yes. Weakness (from lack of food and water, mostly), yes. But pain? Apart from the first day, almost none — and even that was bearable.

And now, after recovering in a local hotel for a day or two, we’re home.

My emotions are still very close to the surface. Crossing the threshold into our building, I started snuffling. Once we got into our condo, with Chelsea jumping around us and Lilly clamoring for petting, I burst into tears.

Especially after a trauma in a distant place, there’s nothing like being home again — our house, our view, our things, our bed.

* * * * *


I will write elsewhere about our treatment at Broward Health — about the people there who supported us so well, and also about those who made our stay in that hospital far more difficult and painful than it had to be.

Here, though, I will close out this part of the story by sharing with you how incredible Clyde has been throughout this ordeal. When I had the attack, he got me quick attention, packed our stuff, and got me and all the luggage off the boat, singlehandedly. When certain members of the hospital staff failed to support me, Clyde was there — fighting to get me a room where I could rest, demanding attention and information, and even going so far as to contact the hospital’s head of Customer Service to threaten to move me to another facility if the quality of care did not improve.

If you know Clyde, you know his gentle nature does not normally lend itself to confrontation — but in this instance, he rose to the occasion, took swift action, and made sure that everything I needed was always right at hand. He kept me company. He comforted me. He protected me. He fought for me.

He handled everything, arranging cars, booking hotels, shopping for groceries, filling prescriptions, booking me a first-class ticket home, doing everything he could to help me through one of the most frightening and painful experiences of my life.

As he is in life every day, he was always, unfailingly, at my side: my partner, my companion, my husband, my Clyde.

In short: he’s my hero, and I don’t have words enough to say what his love and help mean to me. In May, we’ll celebrate our 19th anniversary … and I love him more now, today, than I ever thought possible just nineteen years ago.

We are happy. We are home. We are together.

My heart is full.


Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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  • I'm so sorry you had to go through this but the information you provided (with the pictures) was really helpful. Thanks to Clyde for taking care of you.
    I always "save" your blog postings for when I can read them with no interruption…I love what you write, and where you guys go (and what you eat).

Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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