I was 20 years old and very green in my position as General Manager at the Village Twin movie theater, when I was invited to attend a managers’ meeting in Colorado. I didn’t know what to expect from this event. My City Manager (who I would be traveling with) and my District Manager (who would be conducting the meeting) both intimidated me so I was pretty nervous; and, if I was totally honest I was pretty under trained and irresponsible in my position. We arrived early evening and had a delicious steak dinner with other managers from around the tri state area. We talked theater talk and laughed for hours before retiring to our individual hotel rooms for a good night’s sleep before the full day of meetings that would begin bright and early.
When I woke the next morning I felt an uneasiness in my stomach. It seemed I was even more nervous than I had realized. As the meeting commenced, the butterflies in my stomach shifted to a dull annoying nausea. I decided I just needed something to eat, and a few hours later the caterers arrived and I was served a marvelous Asian chicken salad. I ate every last bite.
That’s when things got bad.
As the afternoon portion of the meeting proceeded the feeling in my stomach became more and more painful. I felt pressure like I would literally explode. To make matters worse, I felt dizzy and clammy. I didn’t catch a single word that was said at the meeting the rest of the day. I had become completely absorbed in my own suffering.
Finally the meeting concluded, and on the drive home I admitted to my boss that I wasn’t feeling the best. Then I began to vomit. It didn’t stop all the way home and all through the night. I decided it must be food poisoning. I considered going to the hospital but since I had no insurance I decided instead to suffer through alone in my home.
I didn’t sleep at all, but by morning the immense pain had faded to a dull ache that radiated into my right hip. It caused me to walk with a limp but otherwise I felt okay. I took the day to rest but returned to work the following day. I thought I was out of the woods. The dull ache persisted, but other than keeping me up at night, it really didn’t interfere with my day to day life. My appetite on the other hand was completely gone. When I did try to eat I became so nauseous that I finally quit eating all together.
Two weeks passed. I dropped 25 pounds and continued walking with a limp. Finally one night I decided that I needed to seek medical attention. In my gut I knew something was really wrong. I decided that the next morning I would go to the walk in urgent care clinic before work. I even packed an overnight bag and made a list of phone numbers of people to be contacted in the event that I was hospitalized.
Upon physical examination, the Doctor could not find anything wrong with me other than a high fever, so he ran a CBC. That was the game changer. My white Cell count was so high that he sent me to the ER to meet with a surgeon. A couple hours later I was in emergency surgery to remove the fragments of my appendix that had ruptured 2 weeks earlier in that managers meeting. That simple blood test had given the doctors a big red flag that told them what I already knew in the back of my mind, that something was very wrong. I should have been dead, but the Lord in his mercy knew it wasn’t time to take me home. My story doesn’t end there. After the initial surgery I spent a couple days in the hospital and then went home, but I was not getting better. I still wasn’t eating, and my belly was so distended I looked pregnant. I also wasn’t passing anything. Then one afternoon I woke from a nap with the most excruciating pain I had ever felt in my life in my belly. I couldn’t even move. My Aunt Sandy, a nurse, whom I had been staying with whisked me back to the hospital, where I was promptly admitted, NG tube reinserted and morphine started. Nothing relieved the pain.
This began the most miserable two days of my life. I huddled in the only position that was even remotely comfortable, sitting doubled over, with a pillow pressed hard against my belly. The entire two days was morphine- induced blur of radiology test after radiology test. X-rays, CAT scans, MRIs all finding nothing wrong. The lab tests, however told a different story. CBCs and CMPs ran twice daily showed I was declining rapidly. Each result was worse than the last. Even though imaging testing and physical examinations made me appear to be okay, the lab results told the truth. I was dying. Finally it was decided in the middle of that night that I would have my second emergency surgery, this time exploratory.
Surgery revealed that my colon was gangrenous and that my small bowel had managed to work itself into a knot causing severe diverticulitis that was on the verge of rupture. The next several weeks were long and painful but eventually I made a full recovery. I didn’t appreciate it at the time but I know now that my lab tests were a key element in saving my life. When everything else came up looking normal, my lab tests continued to send the message that something was very wrong.
As a lab professional, I see this sort of thing often. Patients with unexplained symptoms whose lab tests help build the pieces of what is really going on. Or those patients who seem healthy but routine lab tests show there is a ticking time boom brewing inside them. Lab test are crucial to diagnosing patients and saving lives and I am grateful to be a part of this profession.