• Barbarella
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Disease is somatic; the suffering from it, psychic.

— Martin H. Fischer

It began on Sunday morning. From my first bite of oatmeal, whatever I put in my mouth turned bitter on my tongue — even precious chocolate tasted like melted plastic. Concerned I might be in the early stages of some rare disease, I searched online until I came upon a forum in which others complained of the same symptom: bitterness in the mouth, the nastiness of which was exacerbated by food. One person described the flavor as similar to “the bottom of a bicycle tire.” Everyone seemed to agree that the bitter taste was a side effect from eating pine nuts. I dug a little deeper and learned that the bitterness can begin up to three days after ingesting the nuts and can last for as long as two weeks. It’s not that often I eat pine nuts, but they happened to be one of the ingredients in a salad David and I had learned to make in a cooking class on Thursday night, and I had eaten more than my share. The side effect, though irritating, was supposedly harmless, so my worries were quashed...until the pain began.

Abdominal pain wasn’t mentioned on the forum, nor was it alluded to in the scientific paper or the blurb on Wikipedia describing the Curse of the Pine Nut, and yet there it was. It seemed as long as I didn’t eat anything, I felt fine. On Tuesday, as my imagined devils continued their game of tug-of-war with my intestines, I began to wonder if I might have some kind of bug. But stomach viruses nearly always involve vomiting, and in that regard, I’d been spared.

On Tuesday at dusk, with two crackers wrenching my distended gut with the power of ten steaks, I called the 24-hour nurse hotline printed on the back of my insurance card. I explained my symptoms to a personable woman, expecting her to tell me I had nothing to worry about. I groaned at her verdict: “You should go to urgent care and have them rule out appendicitis.” I’d heard people describe the excruciating pain of appendicitis; this wasn’t that bad. I wasn’t even crying. But the woman on the phone said because I’d said the pain was located in a radius around the belly button, my appendix was a possible culprit. I agreed with her that I should see an expert, though I couldn’t help feeling, once I hung up the phone, that I’d somehow botched the words and misrepresented what hurt how much and where.

At urgent care, I bled into a vial and peed into a cup, then held my breath for x-rays and meditated on medical equipment while waiting in the examination room. Eventually, the physician’s assistant who’d been checking me out invited me to her desk so I could view my x-rays as she explained her concerns. “See all these big dark circles?” I did. “That’s gas.” She pointed to an area where a large bubble was inflating a segment of intestine. Finally, someone had voiced what I’d long expected to hear: I was full of hot air. Her next words, however, caught me off guard: “You need to go to the emergency room.”

The doc suspected I might have some kind of obstruction, but she didn’t have the means to diagnose me with certainty. She directed me to the ER at Sharp Memorial; since I was at a Sharp Urgent Care, the hospital could easily pull my lab results from the shared computer system.

Regardless of their ability to pull the numbers, nurses at the hospital drew more blood and requested a fresh cup of pee so they could run additional tests. After several hours of waiting, during which David left to retrieve jackets and books from home, I was told the doctor had ordered a CT scan. Surprised by this escalation in testing, David and I furrowed our brows with concern. I was instructed to drink a bucket’s worth of contrast liquid, the foul taste of which was mitigated by the addition of some cranberry juice. An IV was put into my right arm, the same one from which blood had twice been drawn because it’s the only spot where a vein is visible.

Waiting for the contrast fluid to reach my intestines, David read his book; I kept myself busy performing visual triage. I could tell who the patients were by their white wristbands, like the one I wore on my needle-ravaged arm. Aside from an unfortunate bleach job, there seemed to be nothing wrong with the young white girl across from us. She and her matching friend looked unworried as they sipped from Starbucks cups and fiddled with their cell phones.

In the far corner, looking pale as a corpse, a wasting Asian girl in flannel pants puked on the floor. I ruled out “overdose” because her companions seemed to be keeping it cool and settled on “flu.” A Hispanic man in a laborer’s uniform ambled to the desk with difficulty. His hand was on his stomach and he groaned loudly as he answered questions. When he took his seat, he shifted and howled like a cat, never lifting his hand from his belly. Everyone turned to witness his agony. Now that could be appendicitis, I thought. Watching the man squirm and wince, the pain in my own tummy began to diminish. Despite the man’s noise, he wasn’t the worst off. That award went to the elderly Asian woman two seats over from the beach bunnies. A plastic apparatus compressed her nostrils, but the blood still found a way to spray forth from her mouth and nostrils as she hacked and sneezed. Who knows what the F that is, I thought. Maybe it’s one of those brain-eating viruses. Just happy I don’t have it. I moved a few inches back in my seat and covered my face with my sleeve so as to avoid any death molecules the poor lady was launching into the room.

By 2 a.m., I’d made it to a bed, with David beside me in a chair. The first bona fide doctor I’d seen all day appeared, kneaded my stomach with his fingers, and asked me how I felt. “I feel fine,” I answered honestly. As with all the nurses and assistants before him, he dismissed the bitter-taste issue. He explained the risks of a CT scan. Then he said that, based on his examination, he didn’t think a scan was necessary, so he cancelled it. I was discharged at 3:30 a.m. Wednesday with a belly full of contrast liquid and a hole-ridden arm bedeviled by super-stick medical tape.

The pain returned the next time I ate. But I stayed home. The last thing I wanted to do was spend another ten hours in a hospital, just to be sent away with mounting doctor’s bills and as clueless about my condition as when I arrived. Instead, I lay on my bed, probed my stomach with my fingers the way the doctor had, and told myself I feel fine.

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SDaniels March 5, 2009 @ 6:37 p.m.

I just wanted to ask if you know where the pine nuts from the cooking class came from.

Last week I took a bag of Trader Joe's raw pignolias to an Italian-themed birthday party, sprinkling a few over my appetizer, and putting the rest of these delicious nuts in a bowl for everyone to snack on. A couple of days later three people are writhing with taste disturbance from the pine nuts, and a week later, they are still suffering.

Looking online, I saw that someone else had this reaction from a bag of Trader Joe's pine nuts, and some others were complaining about nuts from a source called "Tesco."

I notified TJ's, and hope they pull all of the pine nuts there for the last two weeks from the shelf.


Barbarella Fokos March 5, 2009 @ 6:57 p.m.

They WERE from Trader Joe's, but I don't think there was anything "wrong" with them, based on my research. The hypothesis of scientists is that the type of pine nuts that cause an allergy such as the one your friends and I must have experienced come from a particular species of tree in China. Are your friends having any stomach issues? I'm still trying to figure out if my stomach pain was related to the taste disturbance.


snackycakes420 Feb. 11, 2009 @ 2:30 p.m.

That's the worst, when the doctors can't figure out what's wrong. I hope you're feeling better now and didn't have to go back to the doctor or the hospital.

I once was in the hospital for 3 days as they tried to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. Turns out I had a raging infection in my chest, but I didn't have a fever and wasn't showing outward signs of it besides the pain in my shoulder and chest.


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 11, 2009 @ 2:36 p.m.

Wow, three days would be excruciating and stressful. So glad they were able to locate that infection. Symptoms can be misleading. No one seemed to have any ideas with me, but I chalked it up to stress. The mind is a powerful thing, and I have gone to the doctor before with weird heart palpitations that were recorded, but no cause could be determined, and the doc said, "Try yoga." This week, I've been doing a lot of breathing and stretching. ;)


Fred Williams Feb. 11, 2009 @ 3:35 p.m.

I once had some stomach troubles, and found that lying down on my left side with my right knee up to my chest would somehow open things up and relieve pressure. It worked within a half hour. Try it. It can't hurt, and may help a bit.

Hope you get this sorted out. If it's stress, your gall bladder may be involved...if so a few weeks of low-fat, non-spicy food can do wonders.

Do you have insurance?




Barbarella Fokos Feb. 11, 2009 @ 4:36 p.m.

Thanks for the advice, Fred! I pretty much didn't eat anything (especially meat or spice) for a week, stuck to soup and yogurt. My stomach is way better now. I do have insurance, but I believe I pay 40%. Plans are pricey. Maybe Obama will do something about that. ;)


Fred Williams Feb. 11, 2009 @ 5:05 p.m.

Good thing you're not paying for a CT scan! How much will you be out of pocket for the goop they had you drink?

Stress can mess up your gall blader function, and then you get stomach pains and lose appetite. But that may not be the condition. Remember, I'm not qualified to give you any advice on this stuff, just letting you know what worked when I got stressed enough to need to change my diet, increase my exercise (hint, hint), and lay off the sleepless nights worrying about things beyond my control (like capricious software budgets).

I can't say I'm any happier or wiser today, but I don't have the stomach pains any more and I've even grown a slight pudge. So diet, exercise, and deciding to finally realize my ambition of trading worrying for writing and singing songs (even if they suck) seems do have done the trick.

Speaking of which...I feel a tune coming on..."Barbarella's Barfing"...oh, I gotta write this down...


Seriously, from your writing we all know you're in a very stressful time right now. And your writing has gotten you in trouble (the curse of any honest and open writer is lost friends). So it's obvious you're having a hard time of it.

Take long walks in Balboa Park. I also highly recommend going to the rose garden (across the pedestrian bridge from the fountain) and deliberately smelling at least one rose from each and every bush until you determine which one has the most pleasing smell.

Make it a project. It's wonderful for clearing your mind.

Let me know if the knee trick works at relieving stomach pressure. I've gotten some of the most wonderful, pleasurable, booming farts of my lifetime through that method. So be sure to do it alone, or in a well-ventilated room. It won't smell like the roses at Balboa Park.




NotQuiteADiva Feb. 11, 2009 @ 5:14 p.m.

Welcome the American medical scam… I mean system… I’m sorry we don’t know what’s wrong with you because we really don’t know anything about the balance of the human body. Instead we will subject you to bunch of tests: CHA-CHING! “What was that sound?” Oh, nothing you need to be concerned about. Oh, wait, we still can’t figure out what’s wrong with you, here are some more test you need to take: CHA-CHA-CHING!!! “What was that sound?” What sound? I didn’t hear anything… Ah, your test results are back, there is nothing wrong with you. “But why do I still hurt?” It’s all in your head. Will you be paying by check or credit card?


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 11, 2009 @ 5:49 p.m.

Fred, you're fantastic. I always smile when reading your comments. I love the rose garden! I walk down there all the time, but right now, they're all trimmed back, no blooms. Still a beautiful walk, as those trees with the bright pink leaves are in full bloom. Thank you for your advice and kind words. True, things have been more stressful lately, on many fronts. Because of my stomach and then a cold, I missed many days at the gym, and an hour on the treadmill or elliptical always seems to clear my head and soothe my nerves. You make me laugh too, "booming farts." Hee hee. But you're wrong about one thing -- mine actually "do" smell like roses. ;)


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 11, 2009 @ 5:51 p.m.

NotQuiteaDiva, HAHA! Probably by credit card, if there's room. I'm not sure if I'll be charged for the contrast liquid, the bill hasn't arrived yet. I think they actually bundle "CT Scan" stuff (IV and fluid) so hopefully, since the scan didn't happen, I won't be line-itemized for the build-up. In the meantime, I'll continue clipping coupons. ;)


pete78 Feb. 13, 2009 @ 8:18 a.m.

That sounds like a very unpleasant way to spend a Tuesday evening... I'm going to send you a fruit basket (sans pine nuts) ;)


pinkshoes Feb. 13, 2009 @ 2:05 p.m.

hey babarella! do you think you may be one of the 50 to 70 percent of adults who have lactose intolerance? you symptoms were similar to mine. i really thought i was going to die the cramps were so bad. five nights in a row until i stopped (okay, finished) eating the trader joe's cheesecake. i experience serious gas on a regular basis if i don't pay attention to the contents of sauces and toppings, etc. and it is always worse when i'm stressed. gas-x doesn't help since it occurs in the small intestine. the lactaice pills only help partly with me and i still end up paying for any dairy indiscretion for days.


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 13, 2009 @ 11:50 p.m.

Thank you for the suggestion, pinkshoes! I appreciate an attempt at diagnosis. ;) I'll pay closer attention to how I feel after I eat certain foods, including dairy.


ebrphoto Feb. 14, 2009 @ 12:23 p.m.

Hi Barbarella! Lots of my hubby's (that's Kirby to you) stomach issues were relieved when he eliminated dairy for 3 weeks straight. He's been able to eat it in moderation since then without undue agony. They were going to try all kinds of awful tests on him too, but since eliminating dairy worked so well, you could give it a try at least temporarily! His doc said it's common to develop the intolerance even if you never had it before. Good luck, hope you feel better.


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 15, 2009 @ 3:33 p.m.

I remember when Kirby went through that, had to be hard. I'm pretty sure dairy isn't my issue. For example, I made (yes, GASP! I cooked again!) shrimp bisque for Valentine's Day. Tons of cream in that, and I slept like a baby and feel great today. Plus, yogurt was just about the only thing comfortable for me to eat that week I was illin'. I am, however, avoiding pine nuts for a while, since they were at the beginning of this recent fiasco. ;)


maraluna Feb. 15, 2009 @ 4:26 p.m.

Its funny how you replied to all the comments on this lame article, but kept quite on last weeks one. You hid behind your obnoxious husband, instead of having the guts to own up at what you did. I remember when I read the time you were just an hour away from your grandpa, Wow... it's too late now. To late to learn the magic of the past, the wonderful stories that man could have shared, most of all the love you could have gave him, to have made him smile, to have thanked him for Life! But, oh well I hope you have a grand time in the rose garden, and look out for the the end I'm certain the regret will sting you!

Ps. Please don't have David respond for you.


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 15, 2009 @ 5:35 p.m.

Thank you for taking the time to comment, Maraluna. It's true I was fairly silent in the comments on last week's article. This is because I felt all I had to say on the subject had been clearly communicated in my column. David was responding for himself, as he is his own person and wont to do. As someone who obviously reads my work, you should know I do not cower from communicating my opinions or feelings. I find it "funny," as will anyone who knows me and David personally, that you use the word "obnoxious" and his name in the same sentence. Regarding my dead grandfather and those lost opportunities for a relationship, or revelations of what you imagine might be a "magical past," I will say only this: I have no regrets.


maraluna Feb. 15, 2009 @ 7:04 p.m.

I said.."In the End you"ll regret it"...So I hope, for your sake, and those that surround you, that your heart is not as cold and conceited as I perceive.

                      No more Words...Only Infinite Sadness

Barbarella Fokos Feb. 16, 2009 @ 8:14 a.m.

Oh, sweet Maraluna, let me share a bit of my own philosophy with you, one I plan to take to my own grave: How wretched must be the life of one who laments the loss of things that never were, one who regrets and pines for ideas of what might have been, rather than one, like me, who chooses to relish the miracle of love that exists all around us, and rejoice in the wonderment of what IS, what WAS.


Joe Poutous Feb. 16, 2009 @ 4:31 p.m.

... and has high hopes for what WILL be.


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 16, 2009 @ 5:06 p.m.

Thank you for finishing that off, tiki, now it feels complete. :)


pinkshoes Feb. 17, 2009 @ 12:19 p.m.

BRAVA!!!! You are most eloquent Ms Barbarella!


aliciakelso Feb. 18, 2009 @ 3:25 a.m.


I always look to your article. I was truly sorry to hear of your misadventure in the urgent care at the hospital.

I don't know WTF caused your discomfort. I/We've been making sure that we only bring raw milk (grab the 3rd jug deep in the refrigerated case, not the one up-front) and make your own juices at home.

Just know that some of us love to read your article and this event makes me realize that every week I need to send happy thoughts, prayers and energy your way.

You're precious to me, even though I'm distant (North County).

My "beloved" was diagnosed with cancer 12/21/2008, I have 3 weeks until my 1st year law school Final, and my favorite local writer, YOU, got very ill.

I cherish your writing and wish you and those close to you the highest comfort and health.

Alicia :-)

P.S. Remember: Raw milk & sprouts; natural enzymes, not pills and Dr. Budwig's happy protocol.


Barbarella Fokos Feb. 18, 2009 @ 11:18 a.m.

Alicia, I am so sorry to hear about your beloved. I hope recovery is in the cards, and that it happens sooner rather than later. I too recently learned that someone very close to me must undergo cancer treatment, so I can empathize.

Thank you for being so kind in caring after my well-being. I am doing MUCH better, and back into my healthy routine of eating well and working out, with no issues in the tummy region since that Sunday my symptoms mysteriously disappeared. Thank you for your advice, I will investigate Dr. Budwig's tips! I wish you all the best, and appreciate your continued reading, all the way from North County. :)


SDaniels March 10, 2009 @ 2:07 a.m.

Hi, yes, thanks for responding, Barbarella. I've come to the same conclusion as yourself about the nuts of Chinese origin, though some still claim that like apples, there can be a few "bad" or rancid nuts in the barrel that will take the effect over the top for those with sensitivity.

No one had stomach issues, thankfully, though two party guests independently hop-skipped it to the dentist, thinking they had rotten teeth! Everyone has recovered levels of taste previously enjoyed.

As an out-of-remission sufferer of Crohn's disease, I can really relate to your symptoms, ER visit, and lots of tasty contrast.

I've noticed that there is a dull metallic taste that comes with intense abdominal pain, but don't think it is related to what you experienced.

I did wonder if you have occasional IBS (certainly, you don't have to answer that ;). Otherwise, I'd say it was a bit of gastritis, probably from something not properly stored and used in the cooking class?

At any rate, more health--and less pine nuts--for all!



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