How Almost Dying Made Me Give Up Meat

No one ever wakes up thinking that they might not live to see another morning.

One of my favorite movies, The Wood, was playing in the background when a terrible wave of abdominal cramps ripped through my lower right side. My immediate gut reaction was to blame it on PMS. I started shifting on the couch to try to get into a more comfortable position — I couldn’t. Was it the cheesy nachos I had eaten earlier at The Montage? Within seconds, another flash of white hot pain cut through me. I ran to the bathroom.

20 minutes later, my boyfriend found me in the fetal position on the floor. We had been dating for almost a year but the very last remnants of bodily fluid embarrassment still hindered. I waved him off and told him that it was just period cramps. He didn’t bite. An arsenal of pain waves like that inflicted from a twisting bayonet had me clawing at my skin to the point of blood draw. Surely, this just had to be a period from hell.

He returned a few minutes later, took one serious look at me, and said, I think you have appendicitis — let’s go to the hospital. In retrospect, I knew that he was more than likely onto something but in that moment I did not want to believe him. I wanted to blame my mythical period that was not due for 12 more days or the ovarian cyst that had set up shop in my right ovary a few years prior. I wanted to be stubborn because I hated hospitals. I hated being poked. And most of all, I hated the thousands of dollars they billed me for afterwards. But I should have listened to him because stubborn people die.

When I woke up my mom, she knew before I said anything, like all mothers do, that something was seriously wrong. I need to go to the emergency room…No, I have never felt like this before. Before I knew it I was laying down in the backseat of my car, curled up in a ball, as we made our way to the closest hospital.

It was packed. There was dried blood on the waiting room floor and cobwebs nestled in the corners of the ceiling. The air smelled of staff complacency and poor patient outcomes. I was doubled over in the blue plastic chair that only hospitals who don’t care about you put in their waiting rooms. I counted the number of gold sequins on my Uggs to pass the time. 45 minutes passed. 1 hour. 1 hour and 39 minutes. No one was called back to triage. My mom glanced over at my pain-stricken face and marched to the receptionist’s window. Is it busy? What is going on? Why isn’t anyone being seen? The receptionist, with sympathetic eyes and carefully minced words to avoid liability, suggested we go somewhere else. We left.

At the other (and much nicer) hospital down the street, I was roomed immediately. The physician, with his gaze vacant from too many cups of burnt coffee, lackadaisically palpated my abdomen. It was all I could do to not slap his hand away. Without any display of emotion, he read aloud — to everyone at no one at the same time — that he was to order a urinalysis, a CBC, and a CT Abdomen. Hours passed. Nothing remarkable, he reported back to us, clearly uncomfortable with the displeased look on my mother’s face at the lack of explanation for her baby’s pain. The physician shuffled nervously before muttering, there are some other tests and imaging we could do.

I was wheeled off to Ultrasound where the technician, an older woman who had been doing this longer than she would have liked, shoved a wand the size of a small yellow python into my vagina and repeatedly jabbed at my right side. Nothing remarkable, your ovarian cyst is intact, she barked as she snapped her gloves off into the waste bin. I wanted to cry — if these people could not help me, who could? I wondered if I would be in pain forever, or worse, die before they figured out the problem.

After a second consultation with the radiologist on shift, the ED physician shuffled back into my room with a newfound sense of urgency. You have acute appendicitis and we need to operate on you tonight after the general surgeon is done with his current patient. A giant weight lifted off everyone’s shoulders as the relief of a diagnosis settled in. I had not realized how long I was holding my breath until the comfort of knowing my diagnosis allowed me to release all the tension that had been residing in my body. Everything was going to be okay.

Post-op

The general surgeon, a year 5 resident who hours earlier had reassured us that he performed appendectomies on the regular while I was being wheeled into the OR, entered my room in the recovery ward. Unlike his colleague, his touch was warm and gentle while he assessed my freshly sutured skin. He was a young Vietnamese man who never took off his surgery cap and carried a quiet confidence that I assumed put most of his patients instantly at ease. It might have been due to the Morphine surging through my veins but in that moment he appeared before me as a hero — one that had saved my life.

Your appendix was very large. It is safe to say that it was within hours of bursting. You are very fortunate that we caught this in time. This could have been fatal. In the corner of the room, my boyfriend lovingly grinned at me before giving me his signature “I told you so” wink. I smiled, groggily thanked the surgeon, and closed my heavily drooping eyelids before drifting off into a deep sleep that only wavering anesthesia can induce.

The recovery period was uncomfortable and the Percocet, although having done its job at relieving my pain, presented me with a wide range of gastrointestinal irritation. But that physical discomfort was nothing compared to the unsettled feeling I had after having been through such an unexpected medical crisis. Hours being splayed out on the couch watching crap t.v. allowed me the time to ruminate on how I had gotten to this point. Why did this happen? What could I have done to prevent this? Did I really not “need” my appendix?

Up until then, I never had to worry about what I was eating. At 21, jeans from middle school still slipped over my thighs effortlessly and abs seemed to remain permanently etched into my torso no matter how many Wonton Wednesdays I attended. Because of how my body appeared on the outside, I had little incentive to think about what was occurring on the inside. Needless to say, my appendix quitting on me changed that.

Follow-up appointment

Two weeks later, I was sitting in clinic waiting for my surgeon to clear me for regular activities. My right side was sore and I still involuntarily grimaced every time I lifted my arm above my head or walked at too fast of a pace. Healing was progressing better than expected due to the minor invasiveness of the surgery but my mind had been left peppered with questions. My surgeon quickly entered the clinic room, grabbed one of my hands with both of his, and smiled at me. With genuine concern and soft eyes he asked, how are you feeling, Jamakea? I sighed, I am doing great, a little sore but very confused, I paused for a few moments — unsure of how he would respond to my next question — how did this happen to me? 

He looked at me with hesitation and sat himself down on the wobbly stool that creaked and erred as if it had not been used in years. Appendicitis can be linked to diet, he started. I looked at him square in the eyes, my silence letting him know that I wanted him to finish. That it was okay to say something I might not like. Something that might challenge my lifestyle and possibly offend me. He lowered his voice; there have been recent studies suggesting a correlation between meat consumption and emergency appendectomies. I digested each word. My only response available at the time was a polite thank you before rushing out of the clinic. I could not believe it. Although I was absolutely not a meat and potatoes/Western Bacon Chzburger/KFC bucket/Middle ‘MURICA type of meat-eater, I did eat it daily. It was an essential part of my diet — of my identity, even. The smell of chicken breast being sautéed in fresh garlic, turmeric, and lemon juice seemed to permanently flow through the walls of my house. Week nights were spent with the t.v. on blast, our half-blind pitbull-sharpei mix asleep at my feet, while my mom cooked ground turkey spaghetti as she hymned her favorite Gladys Knight melody. I randomly craved my Yijah’s chicken satay with peanut sauce in the middle of the night when I felt homesick for her and her Thai sniff kisses. Christmas morning was incomplete without a few bags of beef jerky poking out of my stocking. Now my surgeon was telling me that these foods, these aromatic and delicious foods that defined my childhood, could have been the reason I almost died.

I could have taken his words with a grain of salt — chopped them up and put my own spin on them to make them seem more like a hypothesis instead of evidence-based facts. But I didn’t. I decided, on my drive home from his clinic that day, that I was done. I was done eating meat. My body was trying to tell me, through extreme measures two weeks before, that a change was needed. Extreme measures — that without emergency intervention — could have taken my life very painfully. I had been hours away from my appendix bursting — filling my abdominal cavity with pus, bile, and feces, thus jump starting a rampant infection that leads to sepsis and ultimately — death. Was meat worth that to me? Any other answer but no would have just been denial.

Now

It has been over four years since I gave up meat. Other animal products such as dairy and seafood have either completely, or for the most part, been eradicated from my diet. To my own surprise, the biggest challenge in this was not the lifestyle changes but the disapproval I received — and still receive — from the people around me. My Korean father-in-law still tells me I need to eat meat every time we hug goodbye and my mom will absentmindedly place some scrambled eggs in front of me during breakfast now and then. I am the butt of many jokes when out to dinner with meat-centric eaters and often find myself limited to choosing between a side of potatoes or fresh fruit. Choosing to be vegan during pregnancy and raising my son vegan has been met with many a side eye and frequent “but what about protein?!” questions. With this lifestyle choice comes a constant need for explaining yourself. A need for laying down facts and squashing myths about the American diet and the human body’s actual nutritional needs. I used to feel targeted and offended by these interrogations but now, after years of built up confidence in my decision, I welcome it. I am healthy and so is my beautiful son. Just ask our primary care physician.

These interrogations and disapproving comments are at the minimum an annoyance and at most a challenge within our extended family — but they are incredibly small and insignificant when I acknowledge that my appendicitis could have ended in a different way. A different way that could have taken my precious life away from me — and no beef jerky in the world is worth that.

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