Crying Wolf

Crying Wolf (or maybe not)

I started writing this post a while ago but for one reason or another didn’t get round to finishing it. (My wife would say it’s a “man thing”). I’m not sure it will add greatly to the body of knowledge about Crohn’s but, from a purely personal level, it allows me to keep a record of my appointments and procedures.

I’m returning to a subject I’ve written about before but this time the effects are worse and have lasted longer, sufficient to make me very concerned.

On 5th May I had an annual check-up with my GP and had pre-empted the appointment with a full blood test. The results came back OK except for lymphocytes and platelets (expected). I emailed a copy to my gastro consultant and mentioned that I had been getting abdominal pain for the last few weeks and rushing off to the bathroom. He replied that I should have a calprotectin test and would have a sample pot sent to me (hopefully).

The symptoms are a pain around the midriff; extreme tiredness – so much so that I can get in from work, have dinner, then collapse on the sofa and wake up at eleven ready to go to bed; but most worryingly, and not wanting to get too graphic in a blog that may be read by non-IBD sufferers, let’s just say the phrase “through the eye of a needle” comes to mind.

I’ve been told told that if you can visualise  pain it is much easier to deal with. Mentally I lined up the suspects. The “upset stomach” could be from :

i) a virus picked up on the train up to London
ii) eating something dodgy (I did eat out in a restaurant in Highcliffe one day and the food was pretty disgusting)
iii) wearing a very tight belt whilst doing a lot of physical work

or the one that constitutes the “elephant in the room” – five years of Crohn’s remission was at an end

Ironically the last time I saw my Gastro consultant I had told him I felt very well and couldn’t see why we didn’t extend the gap between appointments from six to twelve months. I was now regretting it and had started to notice my weight was dropping and the ache around my anastomosis was getting more frequent.

I would have to see what the calprotectin test showed. The sample pot had still not arrived so I took it upon myself to get one from my GP, fill it with the “necessary” and drop it into the IBD Nurses at Guy’s Hospital.

The result came back on 14th June. My consultant emailed “Interestingly it has risen to 436” (previously 179) and suggested that a colonoscopy ought to be the next step. “Would I be OK with that?” Not a problem but I was starting to wonder if I was “crying wolf” as ever since I had dropped the sample in, I had started to feel a lot better. I think this must have been wishful thinking. Something had caused my calpro result to keep rising and my weight was still falling (down to 82kg from a high of 91kg).

The colonoscopy was duly booked – 12th July. I wondered how that would allow my small intestine to be seen. My consultant wrote back  that the colonoscopy would be able to reach just past the anastomosis, the most likely place to find inflammation if it had restarted. If the scope showed nothing then I would need further tests by which I assume he meant a scan. I’m sure he would not want to risk a Pillcam.

This post will continue after (tomorrow afternoon’s) scoping. One more sachet of Citrafleet to take………

The Colonoscopy

I’m not going to describe the whole colonoscopy process, just the things that made this one slightly different and the conclusions.

Firstly taking the prep timing has changed at St. Thomas’. For an afternoon procedure instead of taking both lots of prep solution on the previous day they are now split and the recommendation is to take the second sachet at 9:00am on the day of the procedure. This didn’t seem like a good idea, especially with a travel time of nearly two hours on public transport, I decided to take that second dose at 5:30am and I’m glad I did. It had only just finished “taking effect” at 10:30am when I was due to leave home.

Secondly, and this one would make a good subject for a fashion blog, the very flimsy paper briefs that one previously had to put on have now been replaced with some very stylish dark blue paper boxer shorts with a large slit up the back. Modesty prevented me from taking a selfie and posting it.

For the first time ever the nurse had problems finding a vein for the cannula. After two attempts with my right arm she handed me over to her colleague. Luckily she tried the other arm and was successful.

cannulaOne of the doctors came in to get the consent form signed and I explained that I wanted to keep alert throughout the procedure, so that I could ask questions, and mentioned that my weight was a lot lower than previous scopes. He decided to give me less sedative than usual and that worked fine.

Whilst my main GI consultant watched on, the doctor I had seen earlier started the scoping. As the camera made its way ever onwards it started to show mild inflammation in the colon but when it reached the anastomosis the inflammation disappeared. The doctor decided to see how much further he could get the scope into the small intestine, made possible by my ileocaecal valve having been removed during my ileostomy

Normally I don’t notice the movement of the camera, the air to expand the gut or the liquid used to clean the lens but that final push was the exception. I ended up being asked to roll onto my back which made it a little  easier. Once again there was no inflammation and with that the scope was withdrawn.

The conclusions were : ongoing, mild colonic Crohn’s disease but no evidence of recurrence in the neo-Terminal Ileum (the most likely place for it to reappear following surgery).  My consultant said that colonic Crohn’s would explain the high calprotectin result but he was clearly most concerned about the weightloss (down below 80kg for the first time since before my ileostomy) and sent off a request for an MRI scan.

By 15:30 it was time to leave St.Thomas’, clutching a copy of the report and accompanied by my escort , a fellow GSTT IBD patient who gave up her afternoon to help. Thank you. (I have since been able to repay the favour by agreeing to talk to some undergradute nurses about “Living with IBD”).

On the way out we called into the  MRI unit to see if it was possible to book a date there and then. Unfortunately bookings were done from a different location but the receptionist confirmed that the request was already on the system and marked “Urgent”. I should be seen within 2 weeks.

The Scan

After a couple of days I tried ringing the MRI Unit to find out if they had allocated a date yet, after all, if I was to be seen inside two weeks, surely I would need to be on the schedule by now. Disappointingly the answer I got was that they were working through the bookings “in order”. It didn’t make a lot of sense.

I left it over the weekend then tried again. This time the person I spoke to must have realised the urgency and I was given a date of Friday 29th July, at Guy’s, 12 days from the request going in. I would not need to be accompanied this time as there would be no sedation involved. I then received a letter for a follow-up gastro appointment to discuss the results – 5th September.

The day of the scan arrived. I made my way into the unit. It was newly refurbished and extended and had only been open a few days. The number of scanners fhad been increased from two to four.

You are asked to arrive early as there is a prep solution to drink. I knew what to expect – a thick, lemony liquid with the consistency of wallpapaer paste. I must remember to keep stirring it. But no, it was all change. I was given a one litre bottle of a clear fluid and a glass of water as a “chaser”. The nurse told me to drink a cup of the liquid every 5 minutes. She mentioned that it wasn’t that palatable and she was right. I must have managed to drink about three quarters of the bottle before it was time to be cannularised.

prepFor the second time in 3 weeks the nurse had difficulty in finding a good vein that would take the cannula tip all the way in. On the third attempt, using the other arm, it was finally in place.

I’ve described MRI scans, in detail, elsewhere in this blog so won’t repeat it all here. They are noisy machines so I was rather surprised to have fallen asleep towards the end of the procedure. I think it shows just how tired I have been recently.

A radiologist would interpret the results and have the report ready for my gastro appointment.

Harmatology

Just a routine, 12 monthly Haemo appointment. I didn’t have a list of questions because nothing had changed since my last visit. The doctor called up my records on her screen and said, in passing, “just to put your mind at rest – the MRI scan didn’t show anything unexpected, just some mild stricturing in the small bowel which had been seen before.” Interesting. I wasn’t aware of the strictures. Something to discuss on 5th September. To be continued…..

Managing Consultants and Appointments

What follows is based on my experience being treated by the UK NHS as both an in-patient and an outpatient, mainly with gastroenterologists but more recently haematologists and hepatologists as well. The dynamics described may be different where you are funding your healthcare privately and paying a consultant directly or via an insurance company.

If this post seems rather analytical and cold, with few emotional considerations, it is because I have found this “matter of fact” approach has made the Crohn’s, other minor annoyances such as PVT, potential PSC, BAM, hospital stays and consultants, a lot easier to deal with.

I thought long and hard about how I could encapsulate my attitude in the length of a Tweet and came up with this :

I AM THE EXPERT IN MY HEALTH

MY CONSULTANT IS THE EXPERT IN MY CONDITION

For old hands at the “health game” most of this will probably seem blindingly obvious so it’s aimed at newer patients, ones that become tongue tied in front of their consultant or that find appointments difficult to handle.

1)  Making Lists – Definitely in the “blindingly obvious” category. This has to be the best thing I’ve ever started doing. I used to go into the consulting room with the attitude “of course I’ll remember all the things I want to ask.” It was a male arrogance thing. I’d then arrive home and my wife would say “and what about x?” Blank stare. “Why didn’t you write a list?” Another blank stare. This went on for many years (male arrogance is a long term condition) until the penny finally dropped. Nowadays I start preparing a list several days before the appointment date. (The one shown below was compiled in preparation for seeing the haematologist prior to weighing up the advantages/disadvantages of starting Warfarin).

 

Once you’ve written it out talk it through with someone close to you as they may have spotted things in your appearance or behaviour that they are concerned about but “didn’t like to mention” or didn’t think were significant.

Nowadays, I print out the list and make a point of having it in my hand as I enter the consulting room and after the initial pleasantries explain that there are a number of questions I want to get answered and point to the list. This sets the scene for what follows i.e. don’t expect to finish this consultation until we’ve been through it all.

It is worth noting down the answers, although these should be covered in the follow-up letter that you get sent a few days later. (Or rather SHOULD be sent –  more about that further on). Another advantage of having a paper list is that if you print it, or write it out nice and legibly, and then become emotional or tongue tied you can hand it over and let the doctor work their way through it.

2)  Manage Your Appointments – This may or may not be necessary depending upon how your hospital works. I get treated by two different departments in the same hospital. One of them will make the next appointment for you there and then so that you leave the hospital with the appointment letter in your hand. The other department says they will contact you closer to the time but there is always that doubt at the back of my mind that the request will get lost somewhere in the system and by the time I realise there’s a problem the appointment gets delayed.

Nowadays I set a reminder in my calendar, two months before the appointment is due, to contact the consultant’s secretary just to remind them and that does the trick. Two months is the right length of time for me but it may differ in your area. For Guys and St.Thomas’ (GSTT) it’s usually between 3 and 6 weeks to get an appointment with a particular consultant or to book up for a procedure such as an endoscopy.

3) Continuity – Generally I like to see the same consultant each time so there is continuity in approach and it is not necessary for them to go through my whole medical history before starting the consultation. I didn’t used to question it when I was seen by different registrars or junior doctors but as my health worsened I really felt it could become a matter of life or death (maybe slightly over dramatic!) that I saw the person with the most experience/expertise and who understood my case.

The best way to approach this is to tell the nurse that weighs you that you need to see a particular consultant and they can then put a note to that effect on the front of your file or make sure your notes get put in the right pile. Occasionally it doesn’t work and you end up being called in by another doctor. At that point I politely explain that I’m not doubting their medical knowledge but I do need to see my usual doctor. This has always worked OK.

All the above goes out the window if I’m just having a routine, follow-up appointment where no important decisions need to be made. If that’s the case I’m happy to see any of the doctors. I do actually question whether this type of appointment has any value and would be quite happy to do it by email, Skype or even an old fashioned telephone call. The only advantage of the face-to-face contact that I can think of is the doctor being able to spot something of concern that you haven’t noticed or the ability to carry out a physical examination.

4) Medical History – important if you are seeing new doctors or consultants. If you’ve only been suffering from Crohn’s, or whatever disease you’ve got, for a short period then it’s likely that you can remember all the key dates and events that have brought you to this particular appointment.

If you’ve always been treated by the same hospital then your medical history should be available to any of the professionals treating you via their records system but if you’ve moved around between hospitals, health authorities and consultants then it is likely that there won’t be one single, unified set of records.

When moving to a new consultant and/or hospital, or if you are unfortunate to have been admitted to a new hospital as an emergency, possibly unconscious, then a brief outline of your history can save a lot of time in the early stages of working out what has gone wrong or which will be the best area to start investigations or treatment.

35yrs_MedRecs35 years of medical records

[For years I was always being asked when was my first Crohn’s operation and what exactly the surgeon did at that time. I knew it was an emergency admission to Croydon General Hospital sometime in 1979 (suspected appendicitis) and that it turned out to be a perforated bowel, but I couldn’t say whether any gut had been removed or if it had simply been repaired. It was only in 2011, when I obtained copies of all my medical records from Croydon Health Authority that I could finally give the definitive answer.

Since then I’ve painstakingly, some would say anally, extracted all the key points from consultation notes and follow-up letters and summarised the whole lot, in date order, onto a spreadsheet. This is my “back-up” evidence from which I have then drawn up a simple, one page chart representing my full Crohn’s history and a second, more detailed one, covering the last 6 years. My current set of consultants seem to approve of this approach and have put copies into my notes.

Click here to open pdf – “Health Record 1977 to 2015”

Click here to open pdf – “Health Record 2010 to 2016”

Unfortunately very few x-rays were still available but I consoled myself with a couple of more recent CT scans which I can view using Osiri-X Lite (available as a free download). I find them fascinating but my work colleagues are not quite so sure.]

Maybe a step too far! Scenes from CT scans on my ‘phone

5) Contacting your consultant between appointments – Some consultants are happy for you to email them directly when you have a query or a problem or there may be a dedicated, condition specific, helpline that you can use as the first point of contact. It really does seem to vary. I have read of other patient’s experiences where the “patient confidentiality card” is played to avoid email contact. I’ve never come up against this. So far so good. You should be able to work out an individual email address as organisations like to follow a particular format or you could simply ring up their secretary and ask for it straight out. Nowadays many hospital websites clearly display the consultants contact details.

This doesn’t come without some responsibility from the patient’s side. I make sure that I only contact the consultants directly if I have something that is urgent and only they can answer or they’ve asked me to report back about a problem. I was being treated by three different specialities during 2012/3 so I usually copied any emails to all three consultants as it helped to maintain the co-ordinated care.

It is worth keeping copies of the emails as I found out when I went to have a second bone marrow biopsy and the doctor performing the procedure was not aware that she needed to use a blood thinner to get usable samples (which is why the second biopsy was required). I was able to show her, on my phone, the email trail that explained it all after the previous biopsy.

6) Follow-up letters – shortly after an appointment or procedure your consultant should write a letter to your GP – secondary care provider to primary care provider. These letters are important to keep your GP up-to-date with your condition and a copy should also be sent to you, normally with a caveat that it is a communication between medical professionals.

This system of follow-up letters has always worked smoothly for me with gastroenterology and hepatology issuing them a couple of days after the appointment but then I came up against Haematology. The appointments were fine. Lots of good, open discussion but no follow-up letters. Four appointments and no follow-up letters. I did query this a number of times but still no letters, just apologies.

A few months on and guess what, still no follow-up letters. In the end I looked at my hospital’s website and found the name and email address of Haematology’s head of department. I contacted her, explaining the situation and suddenly I had four, retrospectively written, follow-up letters.

Are there lessons to be learned? I think so.

Lesson 1 – If you are not getting the service you should expect then go to the top and explain the problem. Will this always work? No, but might at least set the wheels in motion to getting a solution.

Lesson 2 – Keeping your own record of what gets discussed and agreed during a consultation is worthwhile if you end up in a similar situation to the above. I use a blog to record what goes on but if you don’t want to share your experiences with others then keep your own private health diary for future reference.

7)  Manage Your Appointments 2 – er, haven’t we already done this one? Yes, but this is managing how the actual appointment goes. I’ve left this one almost until the last as it’s fairly new territory for me. I hope to develop the theme in the future to reinforce the notion that the patient should actively manage how the appointment goes and make best use of the resources available i.e. your consultant’s experience and advice.

This train of thought was triggered by a visit to, yes you guessed, Haematology when things started to go very wrong. My usual consultant wasn’t available so I was being seen by a new doctor. The lack of follow-up letters meant that he started discussing a subject that had been “parked” a year previously.

At that point it struck me that going into the appointment I had a very clear idea of the outcome I was expecting and of the information/areas/risk factors we needed to discuss to arrive at a conclusion. (The decision was whether to start Warfarin or not). Clearly my issue wasn’t with the new doctor, as he had simply referred to the latest notes, so I asked to see the Head of Department. I knew this would never happen, but at least it had the effect of getting the appointment back on track with the appearance of one of the senior consultants who had been a party to reviewing my case at a recent MDM (multi-disciplinary meeting). I ended up with the decision I had been expecting.

I’m wondering if it would be worthwhile starting the next appointment by explaining where I want to be the end of the appointment and how I see us getting there. Would that be too pushy?

8) and finally – as always – keep a sense of humour if you can – useful in surviving ALL medical encounters but I accept this is not easy if you feel really terrible; you’ve been waiting an hour to be seen; the phlebotomist has made several attempts at finding a vein; that person who arrived after you has just been called in before you; etc. – I’m sure we’ve all been there.

Sometimes humour doesn’t work. A few of the doctors I have met do seem to have had a “humour bypass” (I’d just like to make it clear that this doesn’t apply to any of the fine doctors who are treating me at Guys and St.Thomas’, especially the ones that drive the endoscopes or biopsy needles). I have however been left in the situation in other, lesser establishments where my witty remark has gone down like a lead balloon and I’m left staring at a doctor who is clearly thinking “should he be in the psychiatric ward?”.

..and remember if you’ve been kept waiting longer than you were expecting it’s probably because your consultant has spent more time with preceding patients than the allotted 10 minutes. This works both ways. You may also need more than your ten minutes.