Right from the beginning, I was a girl in love with food. My first memory ever is of standing in my crib howling for a bottle; I could not have been any older than two at that time. Throughout my entire life, food has calmed me, comforted me, and sometimes shielded me from the world. Like all love affairs, my love affair with food came with consequences. One day just before I turned seven years old, another mom on our block informed my mother that I was “getting a stomach.” When my mother repeated this news to me, she was clearly distressed. I was merely puzzled. I knew I had a stomach; didn’t everyone have a stomach? Was a stomach an optional organ? Are we born without stomachs but somehow develop one, like breasts? It was confusing. What I did know for sure was that my mother did not think she was giving me good news. It felt more like an Action Alert.
As luck would have it, something else started to happen just as my mother and I were hearing pronouncements about my stomach. I started having intermittent sharp, twisting pains on my right side. These pains came and went, but when they hit, they were impressive. My mother, worrying about appendicitis, took me to the doctor, but Dr. Wegmann reassured her that my appendix was just fine. Still, the pain would come back and my mother could see that for once I wasn’t trying to get away with a day off from school; I was really hurting. Despite Dr. Wegmann’s confident diagnosis, my worried mother took me to a new doctor who took one look at me and said, “You’re in pain because
you eat too much. You have a spastic colon; I can give you some pills for the pain but I suggest you stop overeating.”
My mother did her best; two doctors for one ailment was unheard of in our doctor-shy family. Nonetheless, a diagnosis is a diagnosis, and I had mine. I squirmed and suffered with that diagnosis for six years. The doctors’ grim pronouncement was buttressed by the fact that the pain did seem to start anytime I ate a lot more than I should have. I would eat a large meal, and sure enough, within an hour I would be in agony. The pain didn’t happen every time I ate, but eating did seem to be connected to my distress.
For some reason, I never thought to ask why other people overate now and then without experiencing pain that felt like routine disembowelment. My father, my siblings, and my friends would eat too many cookies or a big bowl of ice cream now and then, rub their stomachs or burp, and move on with their lives. Not me. If I ate too many cookies, within hours I would be doubled over with pain so sharp and insistent it was hard to breathe. I just assumed that overeating was a sin, and the price of sin was suffering.
After six years in this rather harsh universe of moral food clarity, the situation came to a head. It was summertime, and I had a babysitting job at my sister Marbeth’s house. For breakfast that morning, I had my usual Veri-Thin Bread with diet jelly, supplemented by three pieces of leftover Sara Lee Banana Cake. (My mother was not home that day and so I was enjoying an Unsupervised Breakfast.) Enroute to Marbeth’s house, the pain started
and got very bad very quickly. One block short of my destination, I threw up from the pain, staggered the rest of the way, and finally arrived, only to faint on Marbeth’s double bed. Sensing that she would perhaps not be going out that day after all, Marbeth tried to find my mother. When she couldn’t reach her, she took me to Dr. Thomas, her own children’s seventy five year old pediatrician. Dr. Thomas may have been seventy five years old, but she was sharp enough to know that vomiting and passing out from overwhelming pain was not a sign of too much banana cake. She gave me my first internal exam—on an examining table built for toddlers—and immediately said that I needed to be in the hospital.
By 5:00 that same day, I was officially a patient at Children’s Hospital of Milwaukee. I was thirteen, but my admitting doctor was a pediatrician, and Children’s Hospital was where she had privileges. After spending a very long night in a five-foot bed (I was 5’6”), I was subjected to many tests and procedures. The pain would come and go, but when it came it was spectacular. I couldn’t take anything, even an aspirin, because my pain was helping the doctors to figure out what was wrong with me. Since a seventy-five year old pediatrician had given me one internal exam and immediately discovered a mass the size of a large grapefruit, I was puzzled as to why my symptoms were still being examined and discussed. Looking back, I realize that Children’s Hospital was a teaching hospital—that is why I had three different doctors, and also why I received an entire morning of tests and eleven internal exams in one day. It certainly didn’t help that I entered Children’s Hospital on July 30, and my doctors were two interns and a resident, all of whom had begun their rotations on July 1.
Eventually, my doctors finished their testing and announced to my parents what Dr. Thomas had told us ten minutes after meeting me: I had a very large cyst on one of my ovaries; the pain was the result of torsion, a fancy word meaning that the cyst was twisting on its stem. Such twisting could happen more readily after I had eaten. Those doctors who blamed my pain on eating weren’t entirely wrong after all. The following day, I had surgery and one of the interns removed a truly impressive dermoid cyst (it was stuffed with teeth, skin and hair, a fact I try never to think about) from my right ovary. When I heard about this giant (and very disgusting) cyst through the fog of pain and stupor in the recovery room, my first thought was “Oh wow; I just lost some serious cyst-weight doing absolutely nothing! Lucky me!” Little did I know that I would be losing plenty more before I walked out the door of Children’s Hospital; I had had major abdominal surgery: the cyst was so large and had been twisting for so long that they also had to remove my right ovary and fallopian tube. I had to be fed by tubes and I was forbidden to eat anything by mouth for a week. By the time I got home, I was fourteen pounds thinner. Thrilled as I was with my now-baggy pants, I have since discovered that there are much, much easier ways to lose weight. And to this day, when I am out with friends and we enjoy a big meal, when one of them says, “Oh my God, I ate so much I am going to explode!” I want to shake my head and say, “Oh, honey. You have no idea.”