IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Tonsils Died

The good news, my surgeon said, was that there was no abscess in my throat. The bad news: my tonsils were necrotic.
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Jen Karner
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The good news, my surgeon said, was that there was no abscess in my throat. The bad news: my tonsils were necrotic.


I've always been prone to getting sick. This trend started when I was a toddler and continued right on and up into adulthood. I was on antibiotics at least once a year for infection, and the flu had been known to leave me bedridden for over a week at a time. It was bad enough that my mother and I had started investigating National Institutes of Health studies on compromised immune systems.

At 18, I started to get ear infections once or twice a year. My throat would swell up, making it hard to eat or drink anything, and I'd get a fever. Since I didn't have insurance, I'd make a trip to a walk-in clinic where they would give me antibiotics and tell me to head to the ER if I found myself unable to breathe.

I was 20 when the same symptoms cropped back up, except this time they were accompanied by severe nausea. While I'd managed to get back onto my mother's insurance, I was used to this illness and headed to the clinic. That plan was quickly derailed, though, when I pulled over to vomit and saw the black and green crud that had been inside of me.

I panicked and headed directly to the hospital. I drove to the closest ER as fast as I could, trying not to hyperventilate the entire time. A physician's assistant did my intake, and sent me for a CAT scan while a few nurses pumped me full of meds. 

The CAT scan showed what they thought was an abscess in my throat. I was scheduled for emergency surgery first thing in the morning, and my mom, who was a nurse at this hospital, came to keep me company.

I was wheeled into and out of surgery with no issues. It was after the surgery that things took a turn. My surgeon came into my room to explain how everything had gone and said the words no post-op patient wants to hear: "I've got good news and bad news."

The good news was that there was no longer any kind of infection in my throat, and that I hadn't had an abscess. The bad news: my tonsils were necrotic. As in, dead. In the back of my throat. One was 70% dead, and the other over 30% dead. I immediately started referring to them as "zombie tonsils."

They would have removed them while I was under anesthesia, except that my white blood cell count was ridiculously low. We're talking the white blood cell count of a late-stage cancer patient. Suddenly, the fact that I was always sick wasn't so surprising. My body had been so intent on fighting off the infection in my tonsils, it wasn't able to deal with anything else.

We scheduled a procedure to get rid of my tonsils for six weeks later. I was instructed to stick to softer foods and given a prescription for amoxicillin. I'd be choking down 1000mg a day until it was time for surgery. On top of that, I also had to visit a hematologist — that's a blood doctor — to make sure there wasn't any other reason for my lowered white blood cell count.

My mother and I dining out a month before the surgery.

My mother and I dining out a month before the surgery.

A month later, I went into an outpatient procedure and had my tonsils removed. The surgery itself was a super-easy, and I was in and out within two hours. The recovery however, was an entirely different story. It was a huge shock to my system, and it was a month before I was even close to being back on my feet.

The thing they don't tell you about getting your tonsils out is that, as an adult, it's actually a pretty big deal. It was beyond excruciating. I had to take a dose of pain meds every four hours, and if I missed a dose by even a few minutes, it felt like I was dying. 


After the first week, I dozed in and out of consciousness while staying on my best friend's couch. This phase lasted nearly four weeks. I still don't remember most of that July. What I do remember is talking to my friends via notes, because I sounded so strange when I tried to talk.

I slowly got to mending, and by that August I was back to my old self — except that I suddenly had an actual working immune system for the first time in my life. It meant that, at 21, I finally got to enjoy my winter instead of spending it trying to avoid anyone who'd been exposed to the flu.

In the end I got really, really lucky. If I hadn't been back on my mother's health insurance, this surgery could have bankrupted me. I remember panicking on pain meds on how I would pay for the surgery when I barely had a job. But because I'd been put back on my mom's insurance as a result of the Affordable Care Act, it meant that instead of thousands of dollars, I owed $200 plus the co-pay for my follow up appointments.

Me today, feeling much healthier.

Me today, feeling much healthier.

I was told that I'd probably been getting recurring tonsillitis for years, not ear infections, and that if I'd had the ability to go into a primary care physician instead of a walk-in clinic, it's something that probably could have been dealt with without having to resort to surgery. I was so angry with myself. The various clinic doctors I visited during my years without health insurance had no way to know that this was a recurring problem, and without that knowledge they couldn't give me an accurate diagnosis.

Your health is important, especially when you're young. If you think something is going on, talk to your doctor and advocate for yourself. This is especially true if your doctor doesn't have a full medical history. It's also the reason that when you go to see your physician, you need to be forthcoming about your medical history. They can't help you — like they couldn't help me — if they don't know there's an ongoing problem.