Written by Alicia Cook.
Jennie, 30 years old, tells me she is used to strangers asking her when her baby is due. She is used to the stares. Her stomach mimics that of a full-term pregnancy, but Jennie is not pregnant – she is recovering from nearly dying at the hands of alcoholism.
Today, she wants to share her story to educate others on how quickly one can become addicted to alcohol and the harrowing affects alcohol has on your body, even a young person’s. She urges anyone who drinks heavily to go to a doctor immediately and ask for blood work and a liver (hepatic) function panel, a blood test to check how well the liver is working.
“I was being told every day by doctors that I was going to die without a liver transplant,” she recalls, with clarity and clear eyes, as she munches on pre-portioned almonds, a stark comparison to the last time I saw Jennie, one summer prior to her six-month hospitalization.
The swelling in her stomach is a direct result of Ascites. Ascites is the accumulation of protein-containing fluid within the abdomen. Many disorders can cause ascites, but the most common is high blood pressure in the veins that bring blood to the liver, which is usually due to cirrhosis.
Jennie has cirrhosis of the liver. Cirrhosis is a complication of liver disease, which involves loss of liver cells and irreversible scarring of the liver. It is the last stage of liver disease.
When I meet with Jennie at my home, she is dressed in layers, and I watch as she meticulously measures a tablespoon of light cream for her tea. Believing she has over poured, she dumps the spoon and starts over.
“I can only have 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day, and one tablespoon of this has 15 milligrams,” she explains.
Sodium restriction is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the dietary restrictions and health regimen she must adhere to on a daily basis in order to — in Jennie’s case – stay alive.
Every day, Jennie must also stay under 64 fluid ounces. Upon waking up, she takes 40 milligrams of Pantoprazole, and collagen and Biotin (for her thinning hair).
Once she has food in her stomach, she takes 550 milligrams of rifaximin; 25 milligrams of Inspra; 20 milligrams of Citalopram (for her depression); 4 milligrams of Ondansetron (for nausea); 500 milligrams of Keflex; 1 milligram of Folic Acid; 220 milligrams of Zine Sulfate; B12; Vitamins C, E, and D3; Quercetin and Bromelain; cranberry; Citracal; 5-HTP; garlic for circulation and cinnamon for sugar metabolism; Coenzyme Q10; and Lactulose.
Her “lunch meds” include more Citracal, 5-HTP, cinnamon, Vitamins C, E, and B12, Quercetin and Bromelain; 40 milligrams of Furosemide; a multivitamin; Serenelle (for stress); and more Lactulose.
Her “dinner meds” include even more Lactulose, Citracal, 5-HTP, Quercetin, and Bromelain; B-complex, Rifaximin, Furosemide, Echinacea; and Melatonin.
That’s nearly 50 pills. Every. Single. Day.
In a culture that has been overtaken by the opioid epidemic, alcohol overuse has been overshadowed, even though it remains a persistent public health problem and is responsible for more deaths, as many as 88,000 per year.
While the whole country is collectively locking up their medicine cabinets, they sometimes forget a lock should be placed on their liquor cabinets as well.
“Alcohol is socially accepted poison,” Jennie says, and I am inclined to agree. “I’ve always enjoyed the taste, the smell. I’ve experimented with other drugs, but nothing compared in my eyes.”
Jennie remembers always being around alcohol and sneaking drinks from kegs before the age of 12. She began regularly drinking her freshman year of high school. And by “regularly,” she means every single day. Eventually, she would drop out of high school her junior year, and earn her GED the same time her classmates were receiving their diplomas. An idea that came to her when she was tripping on mushrooms on a surfboard in the ocean of her hometown.
By this time, Jennie, who wasn’t old enough to vote yet, was already a full-blown alcoholic, needing to stay intoxicated in order to avoid withdrawal.
“I was making false bottoms in my pillow cases to hide bottles on family vacations so that I wouldn’t get sick,” she tells me, sharing a memory from before she was 21 when she went to Florida for her cousin’s wedding. She drank before and on the plane, then once they landed, she couldn’t find a drink for five hours. She went into withdrawal and experienced what those addicted to alcohol call “the shakes.”
But withdrawal from alcohol is far more life-threatening than other substances, including heroin. The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be severe; sudden withdrawal can cause brain damage, seizures, heart palpitations, and other effects that can result in hospitalization or death. Unlike alcohol or benzodiazepine (this includes the popular pill Xanax) detox, heroin withdrawals don’t explicitly cause death.
Her parents insisted she go to rehab. So she did. Six days of detox wasn’t enough. 30 days wasn’t enough. She completed rehab still in withdrawal.
“I only went to shut up my parents. I knew at that particular time, I wasn’t going to change. I knew I wasn’t going to stop drinking.”
Jennie, in total, would enter ten different detox facilities, some voluntarily. She also went to rehabs, some of which she did not complete. She had plenty of stints with counselors, all of whom wanted to unearth the deep-rooted trauma behind her drinking problem. To this day, Jennie says there isn’t any underlying reason for her drinking.
“I just like to drink, and I became physically addicted,” she says. “I drank on the best of days, the worst of days, on mediocre days, it didn’t matter.”
For years, Jennie was a self-proclaimed “functioning alcoholic,” holding down jobs successfully while simultaneously drinking those same seven hours. She went in early, stayed late, and even made and sold jewelry on the side.
“When I got really bad, I pulled myself up enough to appear better for a few months. I was good at hiding things,” she says to me, as she munches on an apple.
Jennie has one DUI.
“The cops thought the breathalyzer was broken,” she starts. I ask her if it was because she was clearly drunk but blowing an acceptable number. She chuckles.
“No. They thought the breathalyzer was broken because I blew a .42. They had never seen someone blow that high of a number. They couldn’t believe I was still standing and conversing with them.”
Another “really bad” moment was when she dropped too much acid in conjunction with drinking and walked in a stranger’s house, barefoot and in a bathing suit, and scared their child.
“The cops brought me home that day,” she says.
By 2015, Jennie’s body was shutting down. In November of that year, her father passed away, devastating both her and her mother. In February 2016, her beloved dog died.
“I don’t remember much of the summer of 2016. Dad passed away before that, and I started drinking even more because I couldn’t deal,” she says. “My body was shutting down. I don’t remember a lot at this point. I was gone.”
Her mother and friends kept telling her that she was sick and that her skin, eyes, and hair were had turned a deep yellow color. She still insisted she was not drinking and was not sick and fought against seeing a doctor.
Summer 2016 is when it truly began to unravel for Jennie. She was so weak that she could not resist being admitted to the hospital. Jennie hasn’t had a drink since August 2, 2016, the day she went to the hospital. That’s also the day she began fighting for her life. She was 28-years-old.
“I know I drank that day, straight out of the bottle,” she begins. Let’s pause here to note that Jennie’s drink of choice was not beer and not diluted with any mixers. She was drinking cheap vodka, straight. Bottles of it. “I vaguely remember being in the hospital. I shit myself. I had no control of my body. I couldn’t walk. I had a catheter in at one point. It’s all a blur.”
She was admitted for one week, then at her mother’s persistence, entered rehab. She still couldn’t walk without help. By the third day at rehab, she was admitted to the hospital again, this time with a fully expanded stomach. A doctor asked if she was pregnant, the first of many times she would go on to be asked this same question.
She spent three days admitted, only to return to rehab and be brought back to the hospital that same day, this time the ICU.
“I had a ton of blood transfusions. My blood was so thin, I had to get four FFP (fresh frozen plasma) transfusions. They conducted my first paracentesis,” she explains.
Paracentesis is a bedside or clinic procedure in which a needle is inserted into the peritoneal cavity and fluid is removed. In other words, they were draining Jennie’s swollen stomach.
They removed 7 ½ liters of fluid from Jennie that day, about 15 pounds of fluid.
She stayed in the ICU for two weeks then returned to rehab.
Jennie developed diabetes at this time due to the steroids she was prescribed to aid in the inflammation of her organs. Her kidneys were shutting down. She still could barely walk. Then, she had a seizure, the second in her life. The first occurred when she was trying to detox on her own.
“All of this was happening as I was still detoxing,” she adds.
The seizure landed her back in the hospital, where she would continue to have seizures throughout the entire night.
“That was one of the nights the doctors told me I was going to die,” she says to me.
She remained there another two weeks and then learned the New Jersey-based rehab considered her too high of a “health risk” and would not take her back into the facility. Her mother found another rehab in Pennsylvania that had a medical facility.
Upon entering the new rehab, the specialists there told her they didn’t like her blood work and told her she was “crashing.” Jennie then found herself in the Emergency Room on a morphine drip.
“More paracenteses. An MRI. A CT scan. A massive amount of blood transfusions. My hemoglobin and INR were so low, that if I hypothetically got a paper cut, I could bleed to death. And I had an endoscopy.”
An endoscopy is a nonsurgical procedure used to examine a person’s digestive tract.
After two and a half weeks, her blood work came back well enough for her to return to the rehab, but she knew something was wrong.
“I kept telling them I didn’t feel good, so the next day I was rushed back to the hospital,” she says. “Once there, the doctors told me in the waiting area, that if they don’t get me in right then and there, I was going to die.”
Once again, her kidneys were failing, and she had to be drained again. This was her third paracentesis; she still needs to take 500 milligrams of antibiotics a day just because of that.
She was released from that hospital on November 10, 2016. She tells me she didn’t fully detox until December of that year.
Finally home and with her dogs, she was happy but far from healthy.
“I was watching my diet. At that point, I was on strong diuretics, about 280 milligrams a day. This was just to bring the fluid in my stomach down. I was up and down five pounds literally every day.”
She met with a liver doctor, where she went for evaluation for a liver transplant, about two weeks after leaving the hospital. Her blood work came back reflecting a dead person’s blood work.
“The doctor told me, ‘you’re going to the hospital. Right now,’” she begins. “They tried for three hours to get a needle in me. They kept telling each other that I was going to die if they couldn’t get the IV going. They had all given up, it sounded like. Except for one guy. He saved me.”
They finally successfully hooked her up to an IV. And she spent three days in the ICU. She considers this particular hospital trip her “bottom.”
“It was a disgusting place. People were dying all over. I was in a communal room that held a ton of people. The blankets were dirty. There was no real bathroom.”
After the ICU, she was admitted as a regular patient and another catheter was put in. She had her blood tested every hour, which resulted in a permanent pick-line scar on her arm. Her fever spiked to 105 degrees due to an infection in her body.
“That was another time they told me I was going to die,” she says, knowing I am keeping count.
Just before Christmas 2016, she was released and returned home.
Jennie knows every day is an uphill climb to stay alive, but she knows it’s not her time yet.
“I am finally free. I don’t miss alcohol. It controlled my life for too long. All those months in the hospital, I was hallucinating a lot. I swear I saw my father and he told me that it wasn’t my time yet. He told me to fight.”
She has adopted meditation practices and holistic healing methods. She sticks to her routine and walks ten miles a day.
“I am paying for what I did to myself. God wasn’t cruel to me, I was cruel to me. I knew I was never going to heal if I didn’t heal my mind.”
She has been on the liver donor list since February 2017. Her last stomach draining was in July 2017, when her stomach swelling finally started to subside. She credits this to acupuncture.
“Everyone wants this quick fix. Recovery is not quick. It’s something I have to put 100% into every single day. But I still have fun!” she says, with a smile. “The last five months of my life have been nice. I’m re-teaching myself how to do things sober.”
It’s important for readers to realize that Jennie is still sick, and will be until and if she receives a liver transplant. She still has cirrhosis and has Amenorrhea, which means she does not get her period and doesn’t know if it will ever return. She has been diagnosed with “wet brain,” a form of brain damage that results from repeat and heavy exposure to alcohol. This is also known as Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome. She has Hyperkalemia, caused by high potassium. This causes shortness of breath, and if untreated can be deadly. To combat this, she must stay around 4,000 milligrams of potassium per day, which has proven difficult since it is in almost all fresh fruits vegetables. She has Hepatic encephalopathy, a syndrome observed in patients with cirrhosis. This can cause her to become disoriented and completely forget things due to the continual buildup of ammonia. She no longer is able to drive a vehicle due to this.
“Every day I am still in a lot of pain due to the trauma my body went through and is still going through. I choose to see the light through the darkness. Every day I’m alive is a good day.”
That’s not to say that she is not improving her health through her diligence. For example, the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease (MELD) is a reliable measure of mortality risk in patients with end-stage liver disease. It is used as a disease severity index to help prioritize allocation of organs for transplant. MELD is a numerical scale that ranges from 6 (less ill) to 40 (gravely ill).
During her hospitalization, her MELD score was 38, and she was told she had an 80% chance of dying within three months. Today, it is 7.
“When it’s my time, I won’t be able to say I left behind an empire. Hopefully things I’ve done for others will be what’s remembered,” she affirms. “I am telling my story today in hopes that another young person puts down the drink and goes to the doctor.”
Toward the end of our chat, she repositions herself on the chair, and I catch a glimpse of a tattoo by her ribcage, it reads, “from this day onwards, I will walk easy on the earth,” a line from M.J. Slim Hooey. I ask her how many tattoos she has.
“I have 12 tattoos. I got all of them while I was drunk,” she answers. “I look forward to getting my first sober tattoo soon.”
It’s going to be a watercolor elephant. The elephant is symbolic of strength, honor, stability, and tenacity. To the Hindu way of thought, the elephant is found in the form of Ganesha who is the god of luck, fortune, and protection.