One weekend last year, Julie Nicholson started turning “golden yellow” but she was unaware that she had a dangerous medical condition.
The 52-year-old from Armadale, West Lothian, says her husband first noticed it and they chalked it up to her being dehydrated from working 15-hour days, so she began drinking lots of water.
“I didn’t feel ill, but the next day in the shower, I noticed my skin was yellow, and my kids said my skin looked strange,” she says.
She called her doctor the next day, and they scheduled blood tests for her.
“As soon as I saw the doctor, she noticed I was yellow,” she says.
“By this point, I’d turned Marge Simpson yellow; I could have played her in a stage show.” It was terrifying.”
Julie returned home, still unaware of the gravity of her condition, and resumed her job as a data privacy officer for drinks giant Diageo.
“I was in a Zoom meeting the next day when my phone kept ringing, so I finally decided I should answer it,” she says.
“It was my doctor, and she said I needed to go to the medical centre right away.”
Julie was then taken to the hospital because her skin was turning yellow by the minute, according to the staff.
She had an ultrasound and a CT scan, which revealed a bile duct blockage.
“They said you have a tumour, it’s probably cancer, and we have to operate where it is,” Julie says.
- The bile ducts are a series of thin tubes that go from the liver to the small intestine.
- Their main job is to allow a fluid called bile to go from the liver and gallbladder into the small intestine, where it helps digest the fats in food.
- A whipple procedure is a complex operation to remove the head of the pancreas, the first part of the small intestine, the gallbladder and the bile duct.
- If left untreated, bile duct obstructions can lead to life-threatening infections.
- Medicine called Creon is needed when the pancreas has been removed or stops working.
“They told me it was a dangerous whipple operation and of the death rate on the operating table,” Julie says. My father was with me because I didn’t want to bother my husband at work, and he went completely white.”
Her pancreas, gall bladder, bile duct, and a portion of her small intestine were all removed.
She lost two and a half stone and spent a month in the hospital, including intensive care.
Her daughter had just given birth to her first grandchild, Havanah May, and she wanted to recover at home.
Julie claims that her husband saved her life when he noticed she was turning yellow.
Keith, a forklift operator, stated: “When I noticed Julie’s eyes were turning yellow, I immediately blamed it on the long hours she works and told her she was dehydrated.
“She is working when I arrive at work and continues to work when I return from my shift.
“Despite drinking water, she was even yellower the next day, and her skin was a golden colour. We had no idea what was wrong with her; it was strange.
“You hear about things like this happening to other people, but you never imagine it happening in your own home.”
Julie began to turn yellow in March 2020. She had an operation, followed by several rounds of chemotherapy, and was unable to walk without the use of a Zimmer frame. Her husband washed her and took three months off from work to care for her.
Julie has since undergone treatment for serious wounds sustained during her operation.
She didn’t regain full strength until the summer of 2021.
In August, she completed a 134-mile (216-kilometer) walk along the John Muir Way from Helensburgh on Scotland’s west coast to Dunbar on the east coast.
Despite the fact that she had regained full strength, she was still very concerned about what had happened.
“That’s when I visited Maggie’s Centre and they have been helping me so much. I can speak to them about everything and they don’t take notes,” Julie says.
She will continue to be monitored at the hospital on a regular basis.
“Regardless of prognosis, life post-treatment can be hugely challenging,” said Lesley Howells, lead psychologist for Maggie’s Centre.
Friends and family may be clapping and saying, ‘Great, normal service has resumed,’ but the person who has undergone the treatment may feel as if their life has been turned upside down and shaken around.”
“It was very lucky Julie changed colour, or we would never have known something was wrong because she didn’t feel any different,” Julie’s husband Keith says. It alerted us to the fact that something wasn’t quite right here.”