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Medical Procedures I Regret: When the Second Opinion You Need Isn’t from a Doctor

There are many things I have done to my body that I regret. Fortunately, most of them are reversible –  hair color choices, tattoos, the late-night drinking games, when you find a spare bottle of rum in the freezer, after finishing all the beer and wine.

But the things I really regret are the doctor recommended elective procedures, that can’t be reversed, and that have side effects you aren’t told about. I truly believe these side effects aren’t revealed for two reasons. First, people may be too embarrassed to discuss them with doctors and researchers. Second, they are side effects that science can’t measure, so doctors ignore them to get more people in their chair. That second one is cynical of me, I know.

Take for example a procedure I had in my twenties. I was admitted to the ER with a blocked bile duct. A small gallstone was kicked into my bile duct and got lodged. It’s dangerous for your liver. It painfully cleared itself. I could have gone home the next day, but the doctor wanted me to undergo several procedures to check my gallbladder, rather than simply remove it. One test involved radioactive iodine, that showed my gallbladder was functioning properly.

What I didn’t know was that radioactive iodine can screw up your thyroid. Guess what? The very next month, my period was violently out of whack. It went from twenty-eight days to the hour, to twenty-one days and very heavy. It never corrected itself. I had other side effects as well. It took almost five years for doctors to diagnose me with a thyroid condition, that was probably set in motion by radioactive iodine.

During that same hospital stay, the doctor convinced me to have a scope done of my bile duct – to make sure more stones weren’t sitting around. I had in fact been told (in small print) that there was a small chance of pancreatitis. I had no idea what a pancreatitis was, and the chances were remote, and I wanted to go home, so I agreed. Guess what happen within an hour of the scope? Yep, I developed a pancreatitis. It was the MOST painful experience in my life and extended my hospital stay to ten days.

I learned a year later, from a friend finishing up medical school, that the scope technique used had a pretty high risk of pancreatitis, not small, and that if your system is already irritated, or you’re at teaching hospital, the chance was much higher. Guess what? I was at a teaching hospital and it’s fair to say my system was irritated by the prior gallstone.

I’m writing this piece because the internet is a double-edged sword. You can’t rely on it for medical advice. But you can reach out to those going through what you are going through, to compare notes.

For example, in the years following my hospitalization, I’ve had many women in my life go through chemotherapy, my mother included. She had symptoms after chemotherapy that didn’t go away. Those symptoms probably wouldn’t have changed her choice in treatment to save her life. But doctors kept telling her the symptoms weren’t related to chemotherapy. When I mention these symptoms to other survivors, they had them too. They are symptoms that aren’t quantifiable with blood tests, so how do you prove them? But they change your life permanently and people should talk about them, if only to know they aren’t crazy or alone.

In my earlier hospitalization, I was no longer in a life or death situation when I decided to take doctor’s advice. I wish I had been able to take the time and weigh the benefits and side effects.

A more recent situation reminded me of the importance of this. A year ago, I had a uterine ablation, the freezing kind. An ablation, whether laser or freezing, involves destroying the lining of the uterus. I did this to stop the heavy period from my thyroid issue from years before. I had lived with this irritation for over a decade and I was sick of it. I had to wait until I was done having kids. Even though I had no intention of having more kids, saying goodbye to that possibility was emotional. And I went through with it, hoping it would make my life more predictable. It seems that snow ball from that iodine test hadn’t come to a complete stop.

Now, I have a fairly high threshold for pain. The only pains that have overcome me in my life are migraines, that pancreatitis, and recover from this ablation. It was more painful than labor and child delivery for me. Imagine an ice cream headache in your nether region for twelve hours straight. I took my pain meds and passed out.

Here’s the thing – it slowed down my period for a few months. Then the heavy bleeding started again. I told my doctor as much at my annual exam and she told me, “Yeah, it only works about 50% of the time.” I did not know that when making my decision. The main issue highlighted to me was the danger of getting pregnant afterwards.

The pain wouldn’t have stopped me from getting an ablation. It was temporary. But had I known it would screw with my sex life, the annoyance of my heavy period every three weeks would definitely NOT have swayed me in favor of this procedure that “doesn’t work 50% of the time!” It was not a life-threatening situation, just an annoyance.

I don’t technically know what’s going on. But it stands to reason that destroying blood flow to a specific area for a week every month, can affect blood flow to the whole region the rest of the month too. I still enjoy sex. But I used to REALLY enjoy my orgasms. They use to be so intense that my uterus once gave my core muscles a Charlie horse. Climax now takes a long time and it’s “nice” (sigh). Don’t feel bad for me because I still have it pretty good a few days before my period starts. This is when I thank God I’m still having heavy periods, because I still have heavy blood flow to that region for a few days every month.

Typing “ablation side effects” into a search engine will give you a scientific explanation of the procedure, but not my specific side effect. My doctor did not tell me this risk. I couldn’t conceive of it at the time. And like many women, I was too embarrassed to tell my doctor about this side effect after the fact.

I want to get this information out there. Because in hindsight, I can type in the words “ablation, side effects, ORGASM”-  BOOM – many women are talking about it! So in my non-professional opinion, this IS a very important side effect to an elective procedure. It absolutely would have changed my decision.

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