May 9, 2020
By Patricia Sohn
(Disclaimer: I am not a medical doctor and am not recommending that anyone do as I did, as described in this piece below.)
A few years ago, my gallbladder was removed. It was ruptured and was causing infection throughout my abdomen – in all of the important organs. It may have been that way for a matter of years before it was discovered. It was, altogether, a highly uncomfortable experience.
It left me with a monster case of reflux to a degree that, my doctors told me, some survive and some do not. Something approaching 20% of my stomach lining was burned and brown rather than pink and fleshy. My grandfather had died of the loss of his stomach lining’s ability to process food some twenty-five years earlier. So, I took the news seriously. The surgery itself was very difficult. But I survived. So, I figured: Just keep going. If you make it, you make it. If you do not, take heart in your Faith in reincarnation. (No kidding. After all, what else is there?)
For the first four months post-surgery, I lived on a liquid diet – literally, sugar-free jello, bananas, and unflavored soy milk. At about four months out, I added white rice (basmati, in this case). It was a beautiful day! Plain white rice has never tasted more flavorful.
The healing process was solitary and physically painful.
After four months, I added one item of solid food approximately every three to four months until the two-year mark. At that point, I began to have something approaching a normal diet again. However, it was not a “normal” diet according to American standards by any means.
The keys to moving from inability to process anything other than liquids to ability to process most normal, natural foods were: (1) two extra hours of sleep per day; (2) no iodized salt under any conditions; (3) no coffee; and (4) no alcohol. The latter three made themselves into rules of their own accord. Even a few drops of any of them would cause a range of reactions from blacking out at a full stand to severe stomach pain or intestinal discomfort. Anyone who says you can survive with alcohol post-gallbladder removal, I do not understand. It did not work for me. But I did, admittedly, have a particularly extensive case.
The gallbladder was, apparently, fully disintegrated and was decaying inside my abdomen for some amount of time – perhaps a matter of years – before I finally collapsed, and it was removed.
I spent my entire life slender. In the months leading up to the gallbladder removal, I ballooned all over my body. My body was normal in an overseas trip early in the summer. Then, inexplicably, I became large for the first time in my life. In the two months after the surgery, I lost just over 50 pounds, some large percentage of which was in gasses and air during the surgery itself. The rest was caused by my inability to eat anything other than fluids and bananas for so long post-surgery. It is gruesome to tell, but a decaying organ in your body apparently causes your body to bloat; I did not eat a lot, I simply bloated like a balloon. The gasses cannot get out on their own, I was told, so they expand your abdomen and also move to your arms, legs, face, and neck. It is not enjoyable or comfortable in any way.
I give this account for a number of reasons. I see Americans on the streets periodically who have the same bloated look that I had before the gallbladder removal. I always wonder if they have been screened (with an MRI) for an infected gallbladder. MRIs are now far more available and affordable, etc. It seems to me that screenings for gallbladder problems should be common. Hard working Americans should not have to suffer in this way for something so easily fixed before it becomes acute.
Secondly, I wonder why so much of the food production and distribution ends of our food chain in the U.S. involve foods made with iodized salt. Ingested iodine causes negative reactions in some people. In too-large quantities, it is a poison. I never experienced a problem with it as found in natural, unprocessed foods. And, yes, it has important medical applications. But doctors are not present for every bag of chips that you eat. That is, almost every bag of chips, pre-spiced rice, boxed pre-fab gratin, and even table salt is full of it. As I found post-surgery, it is almost impossible to create a non-iodized diet in the U.S. from the standard grocery shelf. Since it is so easy to find in natural foods, in as much as it has nutritional value, the addition of it in methods that make it cause reactions in some people seems unnecessary.
What did I do? I approached the problem as a social scientist and drew extensively from my travels (I have traveled on four continents and lived on three). In what regions do people live the longest? And what do they eat?!
Very little salt was one answer across the board. Non-iodized salt, when using salt at all, was another standard. Very little meat compared with a U.S. diet was also more typical.
The rest sounds like Grandma and is easily passed over as a throw-away. Only, you cannot throw it away when your life depends upon it, as mine did for some time given the state of my stomach lining. That is: FRESH, CLEAN, UNPROCESSED VEGETABLES AND FRUITS. And lots and lots and lots of rinsing of food stuffs, cleaning and rinsing pots and pans, washing hands, and cleaning cooking surfaces. (I am cleanly, but not naturally OCD, so these were new and extensive practices for me.) Even a tiny amount of unwanted bacterial contamination that you could endure when your digestive track was healthy can cause dramatic and painful results in someone with severe reflux.
The reflux came, of course, in my case as in many, with three-and-a-half straight years of chest pains every day. Severe chest pains. For some months after the surgery, I took cholesterol medicine. I dropped any other medication, as they all irritated my stomach lining and made it impossible to digest food. (If you wonder how one knows — Don’t. It is wondrously clear when the stomach and intestines are not working. The body has signals that make it impossible for you not to know.) After some months, I dropped the cholesterol medicine as well. I did better after that. That brings me to the next important variable for me: NO MEDICATIONS AT ALL. My stomach lining could not take any, not even a hard vitamin (in year three, I found a natural gummy with no iodine and no iron that my stomach could sustain). In my case, at some point, the equation had medication on one side and ability to digest your food on the other side. Since starvation happens faster than rising cholesterol in most cases, I made the calculation and chose ability to digest my food. I hoped the best on the former. It worked. My cholesterol is back to reasonable.
I remembered what the men on the docks in Jacmel, Haiti told me about food: You can live on fruit-only if you know how to choose the right fruits and how to recognize the signals that your body gives you as to which you need at a given time. Generally, citrus, and acid-tending fruits are not a good idea for this particular issue, at least in my case. Best stomach-friendly fruits for me included many old standards as well as some fresh and new to the American palate: BANANAS; APPLES; DRIED APRICOTS; MANGO; PLANTAINS; DATES; PRUNES; FRESH WATERMELON; FRESH WHOLE COCONUT, and the like. (I open a coconut by washing and opening gingerly with a hammer on a cutting board and solid surface; holding steady, hitting medium hard, and rotating around the center until it cracks all the way around. Be patient, it may take a few minutes. If you do not already know how to use a hammer safely, find someone else to do it. Importantly, do not ever try to open with a knife or other sharp or pointy implement unless you just really want the visit to the emergency room). That is: look for neutral, non-acidic, whole, clean fruits. I lived on watermelon as my staple, it seemed, for every season in which it was available.
No nuts. But coconut was great for me (whole – not processed or in a bag) as a source for both protein and fats in what became a naturally very low fat diet.
Root vegetables can be safe if hygienic: POTATOES, SWEET POTATOES, YUCCA, CARROTS, etc.; that is, all whole, fresh vegetables, not processed. Squash was also great: ACORN SQUASH, BUTTERNUT SQUASH, PUMPKIN, etc. Vegetables such as eggplant worked for me in the second year, but items such as broccoli had to wait until later. (You cannot imagine how beautiful broccoli tasted the first time after some years.)
No vinegar at all in any form or application. No Greek yoghurt. Milder yoghurts were Ok in moderation starting in the second year (I, not traditionally picky at all, could only tolerate Activia). Too much can create issues.
No processed meats. That means, no sandwich meat. I know. It is a bummer.
Very little cheese. Great protein and flavor source. Not great for the cholesterol, so implicated with stomach lining in my experience.
No salty or sugary drinks.
No sugar, per se.
Far more traumatizing for me than losing the odd glass of wine, which had been rare for me anyway, was: Chocolate. It is a loss from which I have not yet recovered and still hope, instead, to coax my digestive track into submission. No luck thus far.
So, what can you eat and drink?!! Foremost, barred from drinking coffee, soda, or alcohol in any form, I became an aficionado of teas. Ginger tea. Sometimes mint. Sometimes cinnamon. Tangerine tea. Sometimes several mixed together at once. The sky’s the limit when not spending on coffee, soda, or pinot noir. No lemon. Just mild, non-acidic teas that you can find in the average Walmart grocery section. I found that you can cultivate an equal enthusiasm for both simple and esoteric teas as for other more sought-after drinks in the American adult palate. No caffeine at all for the first two years or said unpleasant results mentioned above would present themselves. Starting year three, a mild Chinese green tea was fine. Stronger green teas would cause the same problems that coffee and acidic or sugary drinks did. That remained true five years out.
Finally, and just as important as a full overhaul of diet and sleep patterns: Chinese reflexology and Japanese shiatsu. Following the principles and spots of acupuncture, especially around feet and spine, they calmed the body, which gains its own stress hormones just from fighting extended illness. Better to be in a prayerful or meditative state, or the results can go away as quickly as the session. Go with a meditative or prayerful state, however, and they can last for weeks. I found that one visit per month year after year – plus an electric blanket to melt the muscles at home when reading – was less expensive than the hospital, less invasive, and far more pleasant. Many malls now have Chinese reflexology and Japanese shiatsu available (often in the same shop). Anything that reduces stress, they say, is good for your health. The stress of fighting or healing long-term from illness, in my experience, can make the symptoms of the illness – and the illness itself – worse overall. So, for example, the natural fear engendered by chest pains was far easier to manage with shiatsu and reflexology. Traditional massage therapy did not help as much for me. And, perhaps it goes without saying that returning home to Vivaldi was more conducive to the relaxation endeavor than some other at-home activities might be.
I still have no sugary drinks. If I allow myself a few sips of all-natural mango juice, it is a “wild” day, food-wise. Carrot juice and unsweetened soy milk were a saving grace (sometimes mixed together). I now enjoy blueberries, but early on they caused enormous problems.
A diet of all fruits, fresh or flash frozen vegetables, and very little meat requires some additional sources of proteins and fats. Fish (e.g., great find: sushi and ahi tuna, salmon, etc.), coconuts, avocados and the like become suddenly possible from the perspective of “fats” intake when you are not eating meat more than two or three times per month, and even then in very small quantities (e.g., beef, chicken, pork, etc.).
Tofu was a miracle find. Naturally high in iron and protein, after year three it added a much welcomed protein source.
Shrimp aggravated my cholesterol response. Flounder and other white fish were perfect. Scallops were an amazing treat, but only in moderation (e.g., otherwise, same issue as with shrimp).
Pasta was not a great solution for me – or, to say it more accurately, my traditional dependence upon it had to be mitigated. Homemade bean and vegetable soup with a fine, thin broth was a life-saver. Try lentils if you do not like other beans. Whole grains such as barley and sorghum were game changers. Indian food (e.g., South Asian) was a great solution, as were Japanese food options. Their sauces, at least where I was, did not tend to use iodized salts and tended to be made from scratch rather than with processed items. Plain, fresh, air popped popcorn with no toppings was also a great added flavor, as were Tuscan, North African, Middle Eastern, and other Mediterranean vegetables with beans and no added salt. Homemade burritos with carefully selected low-fat, non-processed items such as home-cooked beans, fresh tomatoes, and corn became a regular staple. I basically began to travel the world from a dietary perspective looking for those items that were natural, whole, simple staples in locations abroad where some people lived extraordinarily long lives. It was encouraging if nothing else. And it worked for me.
I learned that some spices do fine in the pantry, while others need the freezer. That appears to be so at least in Florida (e.g., Turmeric, chili pepper powder, mixed curry spice, etc.).
Interestingly, chili pepper powder and cayenne helped in a direct and observable way. Consistent use of them contributed to reduced stomach issues in my case.
Regular baths a couple of times per week with charcoal soap and Epsom salts was important. It may not be safe for children.
Exercise. During some significant periods, I was not well enough to exercise. When I became well enough to exercise, walking moderately and meditatively (e.g., not hurriedly to the office) was helpful. In year four, I began very mild gym workouts (e.g., 30 minutes walking on treadmill or elliptical, not running; and 15 minutes with low weights) in addition to 40 minutes of walking weekdays. Little by little, as they say. At some point, the body started working normally again, although I am told still to watch it.
We can live through these awful diseases and experiences. The first suggestion below relates to gallbladder specifically; the second two are broader and have application in the Covid-19 era and beyond.
Policy wise: It would help to have gallbladder screenings with MRIs offered more religiously considering that the standard American diet as produced for us on the grocery shelf is basically a gallbladder killer. I do not think that is because Americans demand it so much as it is what we are offered, so we become accustomed to it. That is, it is a supply issue. Changing our food chain would help in this and many other health issues.
Changing the political culture: It would help if people would be less apt automatically to associate longer sleeping patterns inherently with psychology rather than medicine. Social pressure – from whatever philosophical school of thought – not to sleep does not help people who need extra sleep to heal. Sometimes sleep is just about allowing the body to heal itself through its own natural processes. You cannot see or know if someone has something going on with their internal organs – they may not know either. If someone starts sleeping a lot, leave them alone to their healing. Puritan “industry” is not a health status nor an excuse to badger people not to get the healing sleep that they need. Sometimes our bodies are really, actually sick. That does not mean we should heal fast or speedily dispatch ourselves to watch Logan’s Run. Sleep when you are sick, for crying out loud! Let others do the same. I found that I developed decreasing charity for those espousing the Logan’s Run approach to health, healing, and generational change.
Qualitative and process-oriented approaches: Further in that regard, it would help if more people at the societal level would approach healing as a long term process rather than a short term, binary result. If you are the one who is sick, that binary is not a tolerable bet. My doctors were patient with the long-term approach to healing. Their message to me was basically: it took a long time for your gallbladder to get so infected; it will take a long time to heal the results. Expecting your friends and family to be instantly healed is unrealistic, inhumane, and, in policy terms, can be dangerous to public health and safety.
“Still life of coconut.” Copyright (c) PJSohn 2018.
Dr. Patricia Sohn, Ph.D. is an associate professor. She specializes in Middle East (MENA) and Israel/Palestine politics, and particularly the intersection of courts and politics, religion and politics, and gender politics. She has interests in historical institutional, political sociological, micro-level, and grassroots analysis of state and society.