When Diverticulitis Strikes
I knew I’d reached my pain threshold when I lay my head down on the ER waiting room floor. It didn’t matter if the other patients had tracked in mud and God knows what else; I needed to lie on my stomach and relieve the pressure now. I couldn’t bear the shooting, constant pain on my left side, coupled with the bloated-belly feeling I’d been dealing with the whole week. I thought if I could just let all the air out of my abdomen, I’d be fine. So I lay down on the ER floor. (It was better than trying to sit in the crowded waiting room chairs. Pain makes one desperate.)
Three hours of worsening pain later, I was taken to an examining room. As I explained the pain on my side and the severe bloating to the physician, I cringed when his hands touched my stomach. My insides were going to blow up. “It has to be my appendix,” I self-diagnosed to him. “Just shoot me with anesthesia and wheel me into the OR, Doc. I don’t care, just take it out!”
The doctor said little and arranged for CT [computed tomography] imaging. It wasn’t much longer before the doctor came back into my room and told me that my scan indicated an acute case of diverticulitis in my intestines, as well as a tiny ovarian cyst on my left side.
While I focused on the word cyst, fearing cancer, I ignored the word diverticulitis. Yet the doctor was soon asking me about my “condition.”
“I have a condition?” I asked.
“What is it, though?” I asked. “I think my dad once mentioned it. My friend’s parents have it. We’re talking about people in their 60s and 70s; how do I have it?”
“You are a little young to have it,” he agreed, as he explained that my pain was caused from an infection (the flare-up is called diverticulitis) in pouches that had been formed in my intestines (diverticulosis, the condition). While no one knows exactly what causes the pockets to form in the intestines, it could be a combination of genetic and nutritional factors, such as a low-fiber, high-processed diet.
Besides the follow-up with the GI specialist, the doctor ordered an initial diet of clear liquids, followed by a bland diet of low-fiber foods as well as medication to fight the infection.
The low-fiber foods would help cut down on the bloating and gas, as well as lessen bowel movements as I healed. He prescribed an anti-bacterial drug and forbade alcohol while on this prescription. (Goodbye to my one glass of wine a week!)
For the next few weeks, I ate rice, toast, applesauce and Jell-O. (I felt like I was on the anti-diarrhea diet my toddler had years prior!) One day while on the medication, I ate something from a restaurant prior to picking up my child from school. I immediately felt nauseated. The dish must’ve been cooked in alcohol because as I was in the carpool line, I suddenly threw up.
Soon, I felt back to normal. The gynecologist said the cyst was microscopic, and it caused no pain when the next month rolled around, so they weren’t worried. The GI doc wasn’t as easy to please. He insisted on a colonoscopy, to rule out cancer in the colon and evaluate the diverticulosis.
I was told I’d be awake for the procedure. I don’t recall a moment of it. The sedation did its trick, and soon the nurse was waking me up in the recovery room and telling me to change out of my gown. Minutes later, the doctor was suggesting I come in within the next week to talk about the results.
I remember only three things from that appointment:
He said I was one of his younger patients with diverticulosis; it was common in people age 60 and above.
He said my intestines looked like the intestines of his patients in their 70s. Great!
To treat it, there wasn’t much I could do, he said. It was a lasting condition. I wasn’t overweight, but I suddenly needed to watch the type of foods I ate. I could try to stave off infections and the painful flare-ups by eating a high-fiber diet, drinking lots of water, and avoiding seeds, nuts, popcorn and other small hard bits of food that could get caught in my intestinal pockets. (I had peanuts the week before the attack. Coincidence?) At least now if I experienced sudden pain and bloating, he offered, I could inform my doctor and perhaps be prescribed antibiotics sooner.
Years later, I’m thrilled to say I haven’t had any more diverticulitis episodes, thanks to a teaspoon of powdered fiber (psyllium husk) every morning, an increased water intake, and not one peanut or kernel of popcorn (excruciatingly difficult when my family is munching hot buttered popcorn at the movies). Admittedly, the fruits and veggies diet is a struggle: I tend to go for the quick processed foods.
I still crave the popcorn at movies, but then I remember the cold, hard linoleum of the hospital ER. And I don’t want to ever lie down on an emergency room floor again. This works for me, but I’ve learned that many gastroenterologists now believe that foods like popcorn and peanuts have nothing to do with diverticulitis flare-ups and allow their patients to eat them.
Anne is the mother of three children and lives outside of Washington, D.C.