First, I would like to acknowledge that it has been an absurdly long time since I have posted. Call it blogger’s block, or just a complete disorientation and disillusionment regarding what is happening these days in Brazil (more to come on all that). Now… the surgery…
Yes, I had a surgery. This is a terrifying prospect on your native land, but in a foreign country with all the medical terms and new questions you’ve never had to translate in your head before, it is extra scary. Of course, I had my Brazilian-German husband with me during the pre-op interrogation. But sometimes he has a bit of a sick sense of humor (I blame the German side) and cannot be fully trusted to not think something is funny when it is definitely not to a foreigner. Like when the pre-op nurse was trying to ask me if I had breast implants with medical-term type words I’d never heard before, and instead of just interpreting for me, he let the man try and act out his question with an awkward series of charade moves, my husband snickering through the entire episode.
But let’s start with the timeline.
July of 2010: We arrived in Brazil and I began to incorporate food items such as pão de queijo, butter, feijoada, churrasco and caipirinhas into my diet. My body, who hadn’t experienced butter, a slice of bread, or any real format of meat for many years, apparently did not like all this expat experimentation. Most obviously, it rebelled in the form of putting on a bunch of extra weight. Since I ignored this tactic, it began to devise a secret weapon.
May of 2012: I went to see a gynecologist who ordered the Brazilian doctor’s standard battery of 28 tests. When I went back to see her with the results, she probably tried to tell me that something was wrong. Actually, she tried to tell me something was wrong, but this medical professional who claimed she spoke English on my insurance carrier’s website, spoke neither English nor proper Portuguese. Instead, she spoke almost no English and Portuguese with a Spanish accent from a region I am totally unfamiliar with, making it impossible for me to understand her at all. Therefore, I did what any rational person living in a foreign country does with information that is confusing or unclear – I ignored it.
December of 2013: I went to see a gynecologist who spoke proper English and Portuguese, who ordered a similar battery of tests, which I performed (at Fleury by the way, a company and system I happen to love, but for another post). However, shortly after my exams I traveled to the US and then forgot to go back to her to talk about my exams.
September of 2014: I went to a general doctor who orders another series of tests. This time, I sent her my exam password (yes, all exams go online and you just look at them yourself, which is probably what I did in December of 2013 and diagnosed myself as “just fine.”) She sent me an email telling me there was a problem and I went into her office to discuss. Turns out, I had a gallstone. After my subsequent meeting with a specialist and surgeon, it seemed that at this point it was “huge” and needed to be removed or I might die.
Well, there was a 1% chance that in 20 years it would work its way into my system I would get pancreatic cancer and die, is what he eventually said. You are probably thinking the same thing I was thinking… that’s less of a chance of death than me getting hit by a car or shot in São Paulo and die in the next two years (more posts on this to come). So I scheduled the surgery because he was a nice guy and vowed I would seek out an alternative solution.
I also didn’t like the idea of surgery because they don’t just slip out the gallstone, but suck out the entire gallbladder. Allegedly, you don’t really need your gallbladder. But I don’t fully believe that we have evolved to a place that we grow stuff we don’t need. Much like why I don’t get laser hair removal on certain parts in my body, I worried I might need this something later. And I wasn’t going to be able to get it back once it was gone.
My alternative was sound therapy. Not sound therapy in a medical type lab. But sound therapy performed by a gentleman, referred to me by a friend, who came to my home three times a week for three weeks with a massage table, large mountain pipes, a very big drum, incense and a number of tuning forks in all shapes and sizes. I was convinced this would work and so was the sound therapist/ spiritual healer / music teacher. And I wish this post was about the miracles of sound therapy… but all the work didn’t put a dent into that big ball of yuck. However, it was a very mentally and physically beneficial experience, something I recommend if you get the chance.
My husband insisted we go back to talk to the surgeon. Together, they convinced me that, despite all I had read on the internet, the surgery was the right thing to do. It would be a robotic surgery, a brand new technology. The benefit to me being that there was just one small incision made in my belly button. Had I thought through the logistics of an entire organ, not located next to my belly button, and a “huge” gallstone, being pulled through a small incision in my belly button, I might have run screaming from the building. But there were two very charming Brazilian men in the room dishing out the information and encouragement, so my mind never went there. Until, of course, it was too late and I was being wheeled to the operating room.
Here, I just want to stop as say that, while everything has gone OK thus far, if someone is offering up a new technology for some kind of medical procedure, you might want to ask more questions and maybe wait it out. New technology is fun for a phone or TV, but I didn’t think through the outcomes of new technology in the operating room. Because it wasn’t until after I had the surgery and was in my post-op appointment that the surgeon shared the statistics on the relatively low number of surgeries that had yet to be done in Brazil or the US using this fancy new technology. I was tempted to ask what percentage of the numbers represented real surgeries and what was homeless people being given a dollar to have their gallbladder removed. But I didn’t, because as I referred to earlier, sometime humor doesn’t translate. The other suspicious element to the surgery was, it turned out, the hospital was giving the robotic procedure to me for free. I didn’t find this out until there was a mix-up with the insurance and it came out that the equipment and technology was gratis. As I am a big believer that you get what you pay for when it comes to body alternations, this knowledge would have made me very nervous going in. I do suspect that all the Brazilians sitting around the surgeon’s waiting room were in fact waiting to see what would happen to the stupid American women before they scheduled their own robot surgeries.
The other aspect of surgery you want to be aware of is the pain factor. You want to make sure that your expectations are managed properly. Much like when the birth of my daughter was induced and the anesthesiologist assigned to my case suddenly had an emergency C-section to be busy with, mine were not. I asked the surgeon in advance about the pain and he told me that everyone has a different level of pain experience. This is a warning sign that you will be in pain. However, truth be told, if he had admitted I would have a lot of pain, I would still be sitting here with a 2.5 centimeter gallstone floating around my insides.
My surgery was at Einstein, and much like the other hospital experiences I’ve described in this blog, it was a bit being at a luxury hotel. The accommodations were lovely. Everyone was very nice and particularly accommodating and patience to this particular foreigner. However, this is not the typical experience for the majority of the population. It is only because we have really good insurance. Most of the population runs the risk of waiting in line outside the public hospital and dying in the process. Just FYI.
So I unwillingly went into the surgery. Once the anesthesia wore off, I was in a lot of pain. The staff was a bit surprised at it, so maybe my doctor was right in that it depends on the person. But it was a lot of pain. They were dripping me with high doses of morphine before it ceased. Yet, this was lost on the three surgeons who entered my hospital room shortly thereafter, beaming and excitedly speaking to me about the success of the surgery (because they were really sure it was going to work…?) They had a gift for me, kind of like a surgery lembrancinha, my gallstone in a cup wrapped up in a little plastic bag with a ribbon and a DVD of the entire process. Only slightly disturbed by the DVD at the time, they were so nice and proud and happy that I was alive, that I had to smile. That is until I remembered that I had gone into the surgery wearing some kind of blue paper outfit and now I was wearing a regular type hospital gown, and somewhere on the DVD was going to be the outfit change, I was sure of it. Needless to say, my DVD is hidden away somewhere never to be found nor viewed. But, I am quite certain that my operation is part of Einstein’s DVD library, which makes me feel a little sick and terrified.
However, the gallstone in a plastic jar stayed on my bathroom counter for awhile as a reminder of my sins. Yes, I know that they say gallstones are hereditary. But doesn’t the evidence add up? And now much of my weight has come off as well.
My surgeon, Dr. Vladimir Schraibman, was actually really fantastic and a very well-known and well-regarded specialist. Plus, just a really nice guy. If you do have to get this surgery done in Brazil, I highly recommend him. Just know that you might be making your film debut and prepare accordingly.