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Posted February 28, 2014 | comments Leave a comment

Jason Wright: Why I have been off my game this past year

By Jason Wright

A year ago in this weekly column, I described the relief at getting a clean bill of health from my doctor. My mother had threatened that if I didn't schedule a checkup, she'd cut me off from inheriting her extensive thimble collection.

So off I went and the doctor checked all gauges, rotated the tires and told me I wasn't dying. "You're just skinny," she said.

Six months later I began feeling lightheadedness and experienced several fainting spells. I was eating well, but noticed I was losing weight and experiencing stomach pain. November, December and this January were rollercoaster months of feeling good for a few days and lousy for about the same.

Friends and family definitely noticed. "Jason," they said, "you're paler than a ski slope."

Even the lovely ladies at my watering hole, the Woodstock Handy Mart, were whispering that I looked like an X-ray because they could see right through me.

Message received.

I returned to the doctor's office on a Friday afternoon and caught them up on the latest. They calmly ordered several tests and said the results would probably be posted on my secure, online account within a week.

Two days later, on a Sunday night, sometime during the third quarter of the Super Bowl, my phone rang.

"Hello, Mr. Wright?" The doctor's voice was somber, subdued and serious. "Do you have a few minutes to talk about your test results?"

There are two things that go through your mind when your doctor calls you on Super Bowl Sunday night and asks in hushed tones if you have a few minutes. First, "Does my wife know where my life insurance file is?" And second, "What embarrassing story might Stephen Funk tell at my funeral?"

I stood from my chair and walked into another room. The doctor spoke slowly, methodically and apologized for calling at such an odd time. I braced myself for all sorts of possibilities from cooties to Crohn's to cancer.

The doctor slowly explained I was anemic and that he would put me on iron. He also said my profile resembled someone malnourished, a man who might struggle to get three healthy meals a day.

He also said I'd be referred to one of the areas best gastroenterologists. This digestion tract specialist would launch a camera down my throat, peek around my stomach, take a biopsy and see what sorts of treasures might be discovered.

After a pause he asked, "Are you familiar with celiac disease?"

"No," I said, "but it sounds contagious."

The doctor gave me a brief description and apologized if the timing of the call had made my heart race.

"Who? Me?"

We hung up and, naturally, I rushed to Google all I could about celiac. Because, as everyone knows, there's no more accurate source for medical information and for highly accurate self-diagnoses than the Internet.

A few days later, I went in for my esophagogastroduodenoscopy and asked if they would give me the procedure for free if I could spell it.

No deal.

Given how complex the procedure is, I was astonished at how fast it all unfolded.
Less than 90 minutes after checking in, it was all over.

During the cloudy minutes of recovery, the gastroenterologist came in to show my wife pictures of my esophagus, stomach and intestines. I have no recollection of it, but both my wife and doctor claim that I raised my head and asked if he'd found any quarters or, better yet, gummy bears. He shot my wife a confused look and continued with his show and tell of my insides.

Later, my wife shared the digital images and explained what should've been there and what shouldn't. The doctor had told her the biopsies would tell the real story, but that he was very confident I had celiac disease.

Celiac is an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten -- a protein found in wheat, barley and rye -- causes damage to the small intestine. When people with celiac eat gluten, the body ignites an immune response that attacks the intestine. This damages the walls and makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients.

Though there is no cure for celiac, it is treatable by managing a strict, gluten-free diet and, at least in my case, taking iron to help the body create red blood cells to carry oxygen along my body's freeway.

Ten days later, the gastroenterologist called to say he'd seen no surprises in the biopsy and that his suspicions were correct. My body has been damaging itself for months, and he warned me it would take a long time for everything to heal.

While adjusting to a diet void of everything I love -- Lucky Charms, bread, bagels, etc. -- I've gotten mileage out of my newfound excuse.

"Honey, could you do the dishes?"

"I'm sorry, I have celiac disease."

It doesn't work.

In my grouchy moments eating yogurt, bun-less hamburgers and salads, I reflect on the five minutes on Super Bowl Sunday night between answering the phone and the suspenseful moment he put my greatest fears to rest.

What a pity I endured some anxiety.

What a shame a diet change means giving up a few foods I love.

What about all the friends and family I've known whose phone calls or doctors' office visits ended very differently? Just in the last month, while I've been coping with my tummy aches, two very dear friends have dealt with prostate cancer.

Seriously, no more doughnuts? Woe is me, right?

I don't know how long it will take to heal and adjust, but at least I know why I'd been off my game. And if I politely decline your homemade sweet rolls, you'll know why, too.

No, I'm not dying, but I sure am skinny and I do have celiac disease.

I better get to the dishes.

Jason F. Wright is a New York Times best-selling author of 10 books, including "Christmas Jars," "The Wednesday Letters" and "The 13th Day of Christmas." He can be reached at feedback@jasonfwright.com or jasonfwright.com.


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