David Busby illustration
I had just gotten to the point where I considered myself a foodie. Almost every day, I would peruse the Internet, gourmet magazines and cookbooks for interesting new recipes to try on my family and friends. My husband and I would dine at local restaurants a couple of nights a week while our DVR diligently recorded our favorite Food Network shows at home. I even fantasized about quitting my day job to become a pastry artist.
Then last May, I got sick. Really sick. As in I had every symptom listed on the Pepto-Bismol packaging, plus vomiting, for more than three weeks. And Pepto-Bismol didn't help. Nor did anything my family doctor prescribed. The nausea was much worse in the mornings, so naturally people would ask if I was pregnant. I would tell them, "If this is what pregnancy is like, then I don't know how the human race has survived this long." That wasn't it.
I was referred to a gastroenterologist's office, where I underwent tests and procedures I shouldn't have to think about until I'm 50. Everything came back normal, so the doctors assumed I just had a severe case of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and sent me on my way with free samples of Align, a daily probiotic (good bacteria) supplement that restores digestive balance. They also recommended a low-fat, high-fiber diet.
The probiotics helped to clear up some of my symptoms, but the nausea, abdominal pain and bloating persisted, and I lost 12 pounds. Sometimes I was too nauseated to eat anything; other times I was starving, but when I tried to enjoy a meal, I felt full after just a few bites. I explained this to my nurse when I went back to the gastroenterologist's office for a follow-up appointment, and she had a light bulb moment.
"Wait, maybe this isn't IBS. Have you had a gastric emptying test yet?"
Two weeks later I found myself lying under a scanning machine at Bon Secours St. Francis Medical Center after eating oatmeal spiked with a radioactive substance for a nuclear medical exam to find out how quickly my stomach emptied food into my small intestine.
I lay there for 90 minutes while the X-ray technician and I watched the tiny white dots of food try to pass through my stomach on the black screen. When less than half made it through, we knew that I had gastroparesis, or delayed gastric emptying. It occurs when there's damage to the major nerve that controls the stomach muscles — a condition most often associated with diabetes. In my case, it may have been caused by a virus, but no one really knows.
The nurse called the following Monday with the official verdict and told me to expect guidelines for a new low-fat, low-fiber diet in the mail. I would need to follow that diet for the rest of my life.
That was the worst piece of mail I ever received.
It told me I couldn't have fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, whole-milk cheeses, fatty meats, chocolate and many of the other ingredients I'd come to cherish in my kitchen. I cried for the rest of that day, but when it was time for breakfast in the morning, I realized I was going to have to face this challenge.
I decided to start a blog. I named it My Broken Stomach ( mybrokenstomach.com ), and I hoped it would turn this hardship into something positive by making more people aware of gastroparesis and helping me find others who are dealing with it.
It has. And it's helped me focus on enjoying the foods I am able to eat by coming up with delicious recipes that anyone would want to try.
I've been on my gastroparesis diet for several months now. I'm still taking probiotics, and I eat five or six small meals a day instead of three large ones. And I'm feeling much better. I'm still haunted by waves of nausea, but they usually don't disrupt my daily routine. I've gained most of my weight back, and I feel pretty much like my old self. I'm just dying for a piece of cake.
My case really isn't as bad as others, so I try not to complain. There are some gastroparesis sufferers who are on all-liquid diets. Others have to be fed intravenously. Some have had pacemakers put in their stomachs to aid digestion, and others take medicines that help, but there is no cure. Gastroparesis affects more than 5 million Americans, according to the National Institutes of Health.
I don't know what the future holds for me, but this whole experience has really helped me learn not to take anything for granted. Not even one bite.
I still consider myself a foodie. Now I just have fewer items on my grocery list and less to choose from at restaurants. And who knows — maybe someday I'll become a pastry artist who prepares desserts specifically for people with special dietary needs.