“What’s your date of birth, honey?”
“Three. Eight. Ninety-three.”
The nurse’s pen froze where she was filling out my information. She looked up slowly, glancing at me with solemn eyes, eyes that said she was sorry for me.
“Happy birthday,” she said quietly, smiling tentatively at me.
Most girls spend their 20th birthday out to dinner with their family, partying with their friends, rejoicing being one year closer to that anticipated 21st. They put on a birthday tiara and celebrate another year of being alive, being happy and being healthy.
I spent my 20th birthday in the emergency room. Instead of celebration, the day was filled with panic, pain and tears — lots of tears.
My birthday was the Friday before spring break, and I had just arrived home from Lehigh with my dad. My family had made reservations at my favorite restaurant for later that night. All was well. My brother was at swim practice with my mom, and my dad left to go take him to basketball practice (my brother does a lot of sports). My mom planned to return home after my dad picked up my brother.
I was to be alone in the house for no more than 15 minutes. When my dad left, I was feeling a little sick to my stomach, so I decided to lie down on the couch and watch some TV, wait for the pain in my stomach to subside. No big deal…right?
Five minutes after my dad left the house, it hit me — the most intense stomach pain I had ever experienced. I called my mom in a panic, asked her how soon she was going to be home, told her my stomach ached, cried out that I didn’t know what to do, that it wouldn’t stop, that it wasn’t getting any better, that I felt like my insides were going to explode. She got home 10 minutes later to find me writhing on the floor. She helped me into the car and rushed me to the emergency room.
The moment I stumbled into the emergency room was surreal. Maybe I am naïve in this regard, but I never thought this would happen to me. Not in this way, and certainly not on my birthday. By the time I arrived, the worst part of the pain had subsided. I checked in, went through the motions of giving my information and doing the preliminary tests, and received my first IV (a terrifying feat for someone as afraid of needles as I am). I received an ultrasound on my stomach and watched what seemed like endless hours of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives while anxiously awaiting my results.
My test results — what a birthday present — indicated that I had gallstones, rare for people of my age but not impossible. While the doctor said some lived with gallstones their entire life, he suggested that I have surgery to remove my gallbladder as soon as possible.
It was a culmination of a problem I had long ignored. The entire school year I had been experiencing these sort of abdominal pains — not nearly as severe as on my birthday, but enough to have me doubled over in tears on the football field during a dance team practice or lying in the fetal position in my sorority’s bathroom while my peers prepared for another day of formal recruitment. I tried to convince myself that the pains were simply a form of indigestion, and I didn’t tell anyone, not even my parents, because I didn’t want something to be wrong with me. I wanted to be strong, healthy, and happy.
I decided to finish out the semester before receiving the surgery to remove my gallbladder, and when I returned to Lehigh after spring break, I told only my two closest friends what had happened to me. Even after I received the surgery and was healed, so to speak, I didn’t speak a word about the incident to anyone.
The truth is, I was embarrassed. I viewed what had happened to me as a sign of weakness. I despised the constellation of scars on my stomach because they were a daily reminder that I was vulnerable. I didn’t want to tell anyone because I didn’t want people to treat me any differently. The last thing I wanted was their pity. I just wanted the whole thing to disappear from my memory.
It’s taken me a year to realize that that is never going to happen. I realize now that, as painful, frightening and unpleasant that experience was, I shouldn’t hide it. Just the opposite: I should embrace it.
Life is difficult. It’s unexpected, and sometimes it’s painful. As we navigate through our life experiences, we accumulate baggage, and we carry it with us. My baggage is my gallstones, and I will carry it with me for the rest of my life. But it doesn’t make me weak. It makes me strong, and, most importantly, it makes me who I am.
Story by Brown and White news writer Abby Smith, ’15.