It’s in the blood

As a precursor to seeing a surgeon this Friday I booked an appointment with Haematology. It was only after making the booking that I read their last follow-up letter which said they had discharged me from their care. So it was with a certain amount of doubt that I approached today’s trip to London. Would I be wasting their time?

The waiting room at Guy’s was very quiet. Ominously quiet. Half a dozen patients at most. I had never seen it that deserted. The phlebotomist took blood samples and after a short wait, once the results were available, I was called in by one of the haematologists. I had not met her before and so as the consultation proceeded I needed to fill in some of the details.
I explained that since being discharged a new medical issue had arisen – a bout of jaundice. As a result I would be going to St.Thomas’ to see an upper GI surgeon to discuss having my gallbladder removed. She noted that gallbladder removal, by keyhole surgery, is a fairly simple operation on the surgery scale so I explained there were other complications and that my local hospital felt unable to cope with them, hence my referral to GSTT.
We went through the complications and their history :
Keyhole surgery unlikely to be an option due to previous adhesions/scar tissue
Portal Vein Thrombosis/portal hypertension
Low Platelets – would need to be over 80 or might need infusion
Liver cirrhosis
Co-ordinating consultants across two hospitals and four departments
As we covered each topic she used their eNote system to record her recommendations and these would be available for the surgeon to read. The follow-up letter itself would take a while to be issued.
The conclusion was that they would need to write up a plan for the surgery and would also refer me to their thrombosis unit to review my case. I came away feeling justified in requesting the appointment. I wanted to be better informed for Friday’s appointment and now felt armed with additional questions to ask. It can sometimes be a danger sounding quite well informed and having picked up some of the medical terms (the consultants version of polari) as you may get the answers back at a level higher than your actual knowledge! Never be afraid to ask if you don’t understand something.
Yes, I could have left all the above to chance but if I can help the process along, make sure the various parties are communicating and minimise risks then I’ll do whatever it takes. Roll on Friday…
I spent the rest of my time wandering along the banks of the River Thames, taking in the sights and ended up at Tate Modern.
Tower Bridge, HMS Belfast and a new berthing partner
Tate Modern – Installation by Magdelena Abakanowicz

Elective or Emergency?

I’ve often mentioned that I find blogging a great way of keeping objective about the various medical issues I encounter, hence this post which is a prelude to a meeting with a new Upper GI surgeon in London next Friday.

Why?

At the end of January I had a bout of jaundice. Whilst I turned yellow there was never any of the pain that usually accompanies it. I was in two minds whether to go to our local A&E but eventually gave in and made my way down there. To cut a long story short, a few weeks later I had a follow-up appointment with Upper GI consultant who suggested cholecystectomy (gallbladder removal). He was, however, concerned about some possible complications and for this reason recommended the surgery be carried out in a hospital with a specialist liver unit.

I exercised my patient’s right to choose which NHS hospital to be referred to and in my case the choice was simple – Kings College Hospital. I asked around and was given the name of an Upper GI surgeon who is highly recommended and has the added bonus of also working at St.Thomas’ and therefore access to my notes.

(There was a similar situation in 2009 when I found out I needed an ileostomy. The colorectal surgeon did not consider East Surrey Hospital had the facilities to cope with recovery from such a complex operation and so was sent to St.Thomas’ . I moved my outpatient care there in 2011.)

Preparing to meet the surgeon for the first time

The appointmet is set for 9:00am next Friday (22nd September). Before then I need to have a list of questions and any relevant documents. I am expecting to meet the named surgeon.

Just to complicate matters I will be seeing Haematology at Guy’s Hospital on the preceeding Wednesday. Will my medical file make it back to St.Thomas’ for Friday?

I have printed out the relevant documents from East Surrey Hospital- 2 x ultrasound reports + 2 x follow-up letters + last blood test results.

I’ve also included my “jigsaw” diagram which shows the various conditions we need to consider and the dates they were diagnosed or last tested – Crohn’s, PVT. BAM, thrombocytopenia, potential PSC + last blood test showed borderline thyroid.

What Shall We Talk About?

Reason for referral – the consultant at East Surrey was concerned that, in my case, cholecystectomy ran the risk of liver damage due to cirrhosis. He also noted my low platelet count and thought that keyhole surgery may not be feasible due to the scarring/adhesions from two previous laparotomies.

Latest test results – Fibroscan (testing for liver cirrhosis) – 2012 was 7.2; currently 7.8. Platelets – 96 (but have been as low as 56). Ultrasound scan showed one large gallstone but made up from many small ones. Weight – 78kg

Risks and Benefits of Surgery

Type of surgery – Keyhole or laparotomy? What factors will decide

Timescales – waiting time for operation; how long for surgery and recovery for either keyhole or laparotomy

Likelihood of liver damage?

WIll bile acid malabsorption become worse if gallbladder removed? (SeHCAT in 2015 showed severe BAM. I keep it under control with just Loperamide but have Colesevelam ready should it be required).

Likelihood of post-operative ileus? After two previous operations I experienced it badly?

Do I need to have reached a particular weight prior to surgery? (Prior to my ileostomy I was given 3 x Fortisip/day to reach a target weight of 85kg)

My Preferred Way Forward

To have surgery when it becomes necessary not as pre-emptive measure. “Emergency rather than elective”. Maybe that’s over dramatic and should read “Just-in-time rather than elective?” What are the risks of this approach? What signs will indicate that an operation is needed? How soon does action need to be taken once the signs appear?

The consultant at East Surrey Hospital said if I get jaundice again I should go to their A&E and then they will decide whether to  transport me to London by ambulance.

Anything Else?

Next upper GI endoscopy/variceal banding due December 2017

Bloating – have been like this since ileostomy/reversal. Any thoughts on likely cause? One or more of the 5 F’s?

…..should be an interesting meeting

The Aza Conundrum

For nine years between (1999 to 2008), taking Azathioprine (Imuran) in varying doses between 150mg to 200mg/day successfully kept surgery at bay. Any Crohn’s flare-ups were dealt with by short courses of steroids. Then a series of routine blood tests showed that my platelets were dropping and it was concluded that Azathioprine was the most likely cause. I stopped taking it and within 2 years was undergoing major surgery.
I drew a graph to try and spot any correalation between the drug dose and the platelet count. I was expecting to see the count bounce back once I stopped taking Azathioprine and it did so the first time but when I started/stopped for the second time the platelets remained low. I’m guessing at that point the bone marrow was already damages. The only way to investigate further was to have a bone marrow biopsy.


In 2012 I went to see a haematologist and she explained some possible causes of a low platelet count :

increased destruction – the body is producing sufficient but something is destroying a number of them, possibly drug induced

decreased production – the body isn’t producing the right number in the first place which could be down to bone marrow failure.

We also discussed another factor – the implication of my enlarged spleen. Enlarged spleens can hold increased numbers of platelets and therefore the number released into the bloodstream is lower hence the lower count.

I had the bone marrow biopsy and afterwards received an email saying: “your bone marrow is being discussed with the histopathologist and we will write to you with the results. We will see you in clinic later in the year.” (I had to look up histopathologist – someone who carries out microscopic examination of tissue in order to study the manifestations of disease.)

I replied asking for an indication of what they had found. The response was that it would be easier to discuss the findings in clinic.
What did that mean? Nothing to worry about, it can wait, or it’s serious and we want to tell you face to face? Time for another short email along the lines “…I wonder if you could at least put my mind at rest that you haven’t found anything too serious….”

Within a few minutes this came back :
“We have reviewed your bone marrow in our multi-disciplinary meeting and there is nothing sinister to report. The findings suggest that your marrow is underproducing platelets rather than it being an immune cause that we had presumed secondary to your longstanding history of Crohn’s. This may be due to previous azathioprine use. We can discuss this in person and in more detail at your next appointment. In the meantime – I hope this reassures you.”

The appointment duly arrived. The haematologist started our conversation with: “Yours is not a simple case…..”. She had printed out the biopsy report that had been discussed at their MDM and the initial conclusion was that they were “in keeping with early/low myelodysplastic syndrome, histologically suggesting MDS-RCMD.” She knew that I would have looked this up on the internet and would have spotted the potential links with leukemia. That’s why the report hadn’t been emailed to me. [If I had Googled MDS I would have found the following – “The disease course is highly variable, from indolent to aggressive with swift progression to acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) in 30% of cases.” I think she was right to want to discuss it in person.]

She was not completely happy with this MDS conclusion because a bone marrow biopsy looks at two substances – the marrow itself and the aspirate (fluid). When the procedure was carried out the doctor was unable to obtain good aspirate slides as the blood in the samples kept clotting. After several attempts, but with little success, they had decided to concentrate on obtaining a good bone marrow core.

She described it as “like having a three piece jigsaw from which two of the pieces are missing.” At the next MDM they had discussed the results again and decided that, in my case, it was unlikely to be MDS but would recommend a further biopsy to get useable aspirate samples. “How would you feel about this?” I replied that I really wasn’t fussed. If it would help narrow down the diagnosis then the sooner the better. Next time they would use heparin, a blood thinner, with the sample needle as it should prevent the blood from clotting.

If the diagnosis wasn’t MDS then why the low platelets? The most likely cause was a combination of long-term Crohn’s and taking azathioprine. The biopsy had shown that the marrow was under-producing platelets rather than being over active and eating them up. I had been unaware that there was a potential link between Crohn’s and bone marrow.

The MDM had then gone on to discuss what the implications for treatment would be if it was/was not MDS. In either case the preferred course for treatment, at this stage, would be “do nothing” unless I was to have any procedures that could cause bleeding or that required surgery. A supply of platelets should be made available if either of these were needed. The difference in approaches would be in the monitoring regimes and we would discuss this further after the next biopsy results were available.

Back to reception to book up another biopsy and a three-month follow-up appointment.

In the meantime I had a routine gastroenterology appointment and I mentioned the need for a second bone marrow biopsy. Now you would think that a doctor who doesn’t bat an eyelid when sticking a camera up a patient would be pretty much hardened to all medical procedures, but the mere mention of the bone marrow biopsy was enough to make him squirm. He asked me if I was OK having the biopsy as it was the one test he really wouldn’t want to undergo himself! Strangely enough he wasn’t the first person to express that emotion.

A couple of weeks after the second biopsy I was back to see Haematology. When I went in for the pre-appointment blood test the phlebotomist asked me if I knew why she was also taking an “histological” sample. Since I didn’t know what “histological” meant I was of little help. (Of course I know now! It’s the anatomical study of the microscopic structure of animal and plant tissues).

The haematologist explained that one of the biopsy samples, which should have gone for histological testing, had either been mislaid or mislabelled so did not make it. This is why she had rung me a few weeks back to explain the situation. I’d forgotten about this. She had, however, looked at the other slides from that second biopsy and these were fine.

The missing sample had been discussed with the chief histologist and he suggested doing a specific type of blood test which had proved to be 60% effective in spotting problems, if there were any. The results would be available in a week’s time. The alternative was to have a third bone marrow biopsy but they didn’t want to put me through that again. I suppose I could have made a fuss about the missing slide but I couldn’t see what good it would do.

CURRENT SITUATION
When I saw the haematologist in February 2015 she described my bone marrow as being “a four cylinder engine running on only three” and therefore not delivering the right quantities of platelets.
What is the long-term prognosis for the thrombocytopenia? It should not affect the other issues I have – Crohn’s, potential PSC, PVT, but I must avoid the use of azathioprine in the future. It’s important not to get hung up on the numbers as I am asymptomatic and do not bleed profusely if I cut myself.

What could have caused the low platelets? There are no signs of marrow abnormalities that could point to a more sinister conclusion (leukaemia), therefore the cause is most likely to be drug-induced long-term use of azathioprine. The official description was “asympomatic thrombocytopenia. Therapy related secondary dysplasia on bone marrow morphology – most likely due to Azathioprine”.

Do I need treatment? No, but must look out for any signs of starting to bleed more easily. Monitoring? Six-monthly blood tests and outpatient appointments (which subsequently became annual and then dischargeded).

WHAT NEXT?
A couple of new issues have arisen – borderline thyroid level + possibility of cholecystectomy – so it seemed like a good idea to book another appointment with Haematology to discuss further. Watch this space