Gallstones and Grace

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28


It wasn’t my intention to spend several days of my Christmas vacation in the hospital having emergency surgery on the other side of the country. Like most years, our family was spending the week after Christmas visiting our family in New Jersey. We had a full itinerary and were excited to spend the week showing off our new daughter, finally meeting my sister’s boyfriend, watching our toddler play with his cousins, exchanging gifts and so on. But as it turned out, my gallbladder had other plans.


It was a difficult week to say the least. I’ve had pain due to gallstones on and off for the past few months since our daughter was born. For the most part the pain had been sporadic and manageable. But the week of our vacation, the pain seemed to be escalating with each episode, and pain was quickly becoming the norm rather than the exception. Advil was becoming fairly useless, and as I lay awake at night in the guest room of my Dad’s house with sharp pain below my ribcage and into my back, the only thing that seemed to soothe me was steady breathing, holding my husband’s hand and repeating after him,

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want

– “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want;”

He makes me lie down in green pastures.

– Yes, green pastures. Imagine you’re laying in a green pasture. “He makes me lie down in green pastures;”

He leads me beside quiet waters.

– Quiet waters. Breathe and picture the quiet waters. God wants to give me rest. Breathe. “He leads me beside quiet waters; “

He restores my soul.

–Yes, Lord. “ He restores my soul.”


Prayer can be much better for pain management than ibuprofen.


If I were back at home in Pasadena I would have tried to have surgery to remove my gallbladder as soon as possible, but my health insurance is an HMO and in order to get “out of network” surgery I needed to be admitted through the ER and have an ER doctor decide the surgery was an emergency. And I guess pain didn’t qualify because my first ER trip that week had ended in me being sent home after ruling out a heart attack, a blood clot in my lungs or anything drastically wrong with my gallbladder besides the previously discovered gallstones. We considered flying home sooner but the cost of rescheduling all of our plane tickets was astronomical. We decided I’d have to tough it out for another week and check myself into the ER upon returning to LA.


And so I found myself stuck on the other side of the country, with more pain than I was able to deal with, biding my time until I could fly home and have my gallbladder removed.


There’s this wonderful verse in scripture I often come back to found in Romans 8:28.

“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

It’s the verse I most often go to when trying to make sense of all the suffering this world brings. Yes there is unspeakable suffering in the world. And so often it makes no sense at all. But with full, first-hand knowledge of that suffering, the Apostle Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, boldly declares that somehow all things – yes all – become tools in the hands of our loving God to work for our good.


Now, I love to swap medical stories as much as the next person, but that’s not what motivated me to sit down and write about my gallbladder fiasco. I decided to share it here because the way the rest of the week played out became the most simple illustration of Romans 8:28 I’ve been blessed to experience.


On New Year’s Eve at around dinner time I felt another gallbladder attack coming on. And as usual, it started out slowly and began to intensify as the hours passed. I tried watching a movie to distract myself. (Incidentally, a cross-cultural documentary on Babies with no actual spoken words or plot line is not the best choice under these circumstances.) I made it through the documentary, and then moved onto another more plot-driven movie. But the pain was quickly becoming too intense to distract myself from it. With only a couple of hours left in 2015, I found myself pacing around my in-laws’ living room, near tears, and using breathing techniques I’d learned in a Lamaze childbirth class. And unlike childbirth, there was no break in the pain between contractions to catch my breath. I felt like I was going out of my mind. Even though I was afraid of a potential insurance battle over some hypothetical denied coverage leaving us bankrupt, I had no choice but to go to the ER for the second time that week.


We left our son asleep upstairs with at his grandparents’ house where we were staying, and my husband, infant daughter (who still needs me for food) and I made our way to the ER. I hobbled in, did my best to answer all the intake questions, made my way to a patient room and then explained what had been going on to the doctor. I told him that the pain had become unbearable, that I wanted to have the surgery but that our insurance wouldn’t cover it unless it was an emergency. They gave pain meds that finally provided relief from the pain I had been in on and off for days, and began running tests to see what was going on with my gallbladder to cause the pain to escalate as it had. My blood work soon showed that something was indeed wrong. My liver levels which had been normal two days earlier now were dangerously high. An ultrasound and an MRI confirmed that a couple of gallstones had gotten out and were stuck, dangerously blocking a duct that drains the liver, gallbladder and pancreas. The doctor assured me that the surgery needed to be done urgently and if I had waited a couple more days before coming in to be treated it could have been life threatening.


From there it was just one evidence of God’s grace after the other – so many undeserved blessings. The pain meds that I had previously thought I was allergic to working when nothing else would stop the pain was grace. Having a condition diagnosed as “potentially life-threatening” so that no insurance company should be able to argue that the surgery was “elective” was grace. And having pain strong enough to get me to the hospital even when I had made up my mind to wait it out at home was grace. The MRI technician being in-house and available at 2AM on New Year’s Day was grace. The nurse who gave me a free breast pump so that I would be able to send food home for our infant to eat while I was in the hospital was grace. Our baby girl happily drinking from a bottle the whole time I was in the hospital while she normally refuses was grace, and nothing short of a miracle. Winding up with exactly the right amount of milk to send home to carry our daughter through to my return was grace. Having the whole fiasco occur while we were visiting our parents so that babysitters for our kids were readily available was grace. The hospital being able to assemble a surgical team on New Year’s Day was grace. Being assigned a surgeon who prefers to do the two procedures I needed back to back instead of having to wait a day in between was grace. Waking up from surgery was grace. Not needing any pain meds following the surgery was grace. At every turn, God’s grace pursued and overwhelmed me. Even in the midst of hardships, God is so good.


“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”


It’s easy to look back now at the details of this whole ordeal and see how God was working things out for my good, especially in the details I never would have chosen. I wouldn’t have chosen to get so sick on vacation. But that’s actually where I have the most family support, during a week when my husband had off work and could be by my side, and where I didn’t have to worry about who would take care of our kids while I was in the hospital. I wouldn’t have chosen to have pain so intense it brought me to tears. But God used the pain to lead me – first to him in prayer and in trust as the one who would care for me, and second to the hospital where I would get the medical attention I needed. I wouldn’t have chosen to have my gallstones lodge themselves in a duct that jeopardized three major organs. But if they hadn’t, I probably wouldn’t have qualified for out-of-network emergency surgery and I would have had to live with the pain for several more weeks, when I desperately wanted to have the surgery done and over with.


In hindsight so often we see what we can only trust is true as it’s occurring – that even our worst pain, sickness or heartache, in the hands of our loving God, can be molded, shaped, and turned around to work for our good.


With something like a successful routine surgery, maybe it’s not too hard to recognize God at work. I certainly don’t mean to sound trite or to downplay the very real presence of evil and pain that we all face at different seasons of life. I know that what I’ve been through recently is quite trivial by way of comparison. But perhaps because it is so trivial – so simple – it can serve as a lens or a metaphor to help understand how God works in much more complicated, painful situations. The very things that were the most painful, inconvenient and dangerous were actually necessary in order to accomplish some greater good. And perhaps God allowed me to go through those things – the inopportune timing that left me surrounded with loved ones; the pain that moved me to reach out for help; the life-threatening complication that made it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt which path forward I needed to take—the things I would never have chosen, God used for my good.


The pain and heartache we face in this life usually doesn’t come packaged so neatly, and it’s usually not so quickly resolved. Sometimes it takes years, decades, perhaps even generations for us to have enough perspective that we can see how God brought good out of the ashes of life’s trials. But for me, this experience was a reminder that where we suffer, God’s grace and mercy are also there pursuing us, taking our broken bodies, hearts, dreams, and relationships, and shaping them so they can work for our own healing and redemption. We have a good Father in heaven who loves us and cares for us, who works all things, even broken gallbladders, for our good.


Have you experienced anything similar? Have you ever been overwhelmed by God’s grace in the midst of painful circumstances? If you’re willing, please share a story of when you encountered God’s grace in life’s trials.

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One Comment to “Gallstones and Grace”

  1. Michael Says:

    thank you for sharing the details of that week…..the support…the blessings and your embracement of God’s Grace. We are so thrilled to have you home and “gracing” us with your beautiful smile and embracing Spirit.

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