Category Archives: azathioprine

The Difficult Patient

I like to think that I’m a good patient. I very rarely forget to take my medication; I always turn up for appointments; I try to enter the consulting room with a positive attitude and clutching a list of questions.

…but I’m also a difficult patient. I think it’s true of any IBD patient that we are “difficult” because it is likely that on first presentation to our GP our symptoms could have a number of possible explanations. At least more doctors are becoming aware of IBD as an avenue for investigation. It took 8 months for my positive diagnosis of Crohn’s disease, via “nerves” and “spastic colon” along the way.

The difficulty continued. My platelet count dropped dramatically (thrombocytopenia). The most likely explanation? “It was the azathioprine.” So I stopped the azathioprine, my platelets showed no improvement and I ended up having surgery to remove a stricture.

Azathioprine is known to potentially affect the blood which is why we should have regular blood tests when taking it. Although my platelet count was around the 70 mark (usual range 150 – 400), I was asymptomatic. If I cut myself I didn’t bleed any more than usual and after several visits to see the haematologist it was decided to park the issue as it wasn’t affecting any other treatment. I had been in remission and Crohn’s drug free since surgery.

But what if the Crohn’s started to flare again and my gastro consultant decided the best treatment would be to restart the Aza? I put this to him and he agreed that we should un-park the question and try to find out whether the drug was to blame.

Off to see the haematologist again and two bone marrow biopsies later it was decided that Aza was the probably the guilty party, had attacked my bone marrow which in turn suppressed platelet production. (…..not everyone agrees)

The second “difficulty” was when I started vomiting blood, an incident that I have mentioned many times before. Into our local A&E and then admitted as an in-patient. The consultants there were expecting to find an ulcer. To confirm their suspicions they shoved a camera down my throat and were surprised to find esophageal varices. A simple-to-treat ulcer was actually something a lot more sinister.

One ultrasound scan later and it was identified as portal vein thrombosis. Time to pass me back into the care of my usual hospital. Treatment would involve both a hepatologist and haematologist. At my first meeting with the hepatologist I asked what could have caused the blood clot in my portal vein. He said that the most likely explanation was that it resulted from peritonitis brought on by a perforated bowel over 30 years previously. I have to admit I still struggle with this explanation. Why did it take 30 years to come to a head? Result – beta blockers and proton pump inhibitors.

The haematologist suggested that I started taking blood thinners to combat the threat of further blood clots. I really didn’t want to take any more medication than strictly necessary so we did a risk analysis and concluded that it was 50/50 for and against. Result – no warfarin. Another issue successfully parked.

Then came the jaundice as a result of gallstones. I met with upper GI surgeons at both my local and Kings College hospitals. The usual treatment would be to whip out my gallbladder using keyhole surgery but, of course, my case is not so simple. Previous laparotomies have left scar tissue and adhesions that would preclude a keyhole operation. Then an MRCP scan showed that the varices, that had grown down my throat, had also grown around my gallbladder.  Aaah!

What have we concluded? The choices are to operate now to prevent a problem in the future “that might never happen” or to postpone the decision and review again in 6 months time. He was minded to go with this second option. I wholeheartedly agreed with him.

…and finally there’s the little matter of conflicting test results. As it was the subject of my last post I don’t intend to repeat it here but it leaves me with questions. Is the “wait and watch, let’s park that issue” a valid strategy or best option in this instance. If I asked for further investigations to be done would I simply be using up valuable NHS resources carrying out tests that might make no difference to, or even worsen, my QOL? Would it even be clear which further tests could be carried out? As I said in that previous post, curiosity is getting the better of me but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. That’s one of the advantages of writing a blog. You can get all your thoughts down in one place and then, you guessed it, park them.

Maybe there are no clear cut answers but I’m starting to feel that my “difficult patient” status can only get worse as the ageing process kicks in. Oh for a simple life.

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

Fifty Shades of Grey

Let’s get my latest appointment out the way…….

Monday – 24th April 2017 – Gastro Appointment, Guy’s Hospital

I hadn’t planned this appointment, neither had my gastro consultant but the booking system had other ideas. It must be set to auto repeat every 6 months and doesn’t take into account any ad-hoc appointments in between. I had intended to cancel but I’m pleased I didn’t as there were things that needed talking through. I produced the obligatory list of questions (responses in red) :

1.    Biopsy results (from 11th March colonoscopy) – the report from the path lab said that the biopsies were consistent with “quiescent” Crohn’s disease. This result was about as good as it could get. Once you have the disease there will always be some signs of it, even when in remission.

2.    Explanation of rising calpro levels given result of recent colonoscopy?       – to be honest, he simply did not know what was causing the raised calpro levels. He had been concerned that something had been missed during a previous colonoscopy hence the repeat, in March, carried out by his trusted colleague (and watched by an audience of trainee, international gastroenterologists).

3.    If calprotectin tests not giving meaningful pointer to Crohn’s activity what monitoring regime should we adopt? – I had anticipated what the answer would be and I was right. If you start to feel the Crohn’s is becoming active then we’ll take it from there.

4.    The upper GI surgeon (Professor), who I saw locally (see previous post) regarding gallbladder removal, was talking about referral to a specialist liver facility “in case of needing a transplant” arising from complications during the  cholecystectomy (sounded very drastic) – my gastro agreed that I should be referred to a specialist unit in view of my concurrent conditions. The most likely unit would be the one at Kings College Hospital. The issue of needing a transplant would be a last resort if something went very wrong during the operation. He typed a letter to the Professor suggesting that the referral should go ahead.

5.    Awaiting ultrasound appointment (locally) to look at liver, gallbladder, bile duct and portal vein – noted. No date as yet.

6.    Pros and cons of having gallbladder removed? – to be discussed with specialist liver facility. Even if I decide not to have surgery I would at least be on their radar so that should I end up having another jaundice incident, that needed urgent resolution, they would already be aware of my case.

7.    Fibro-scan to see if liver cirrhosis progressing – he filled in the online booking form to request the scan. (Date now through – 4th September)

8.    Current weight 78.2kg. The target weight set prior to my ileostomy (October 2010) was to get UP to 90kg, which I achieved with the aid of 3 x Fortisip (300 calories each) per day. My subsequent decline by 12kg has been quite a loss – whilst I felt fit at this reduced weight it was a lot lighter than the previous target weight. I thought I had better point it out. We would continue to monitor.

9.    Next steps – ultrasound scan; fibro-scan; no further colonoscopies at present; follow-up appointment in 6 months time (the booking system should already be doing that); yearly endoscopy at Christmas to check varices + appointment with specialist liver unit.

50 Shades of Grey

For 30 years I really didn’t want to delve too deeply into my health. It was clear, black and white, I had Crohn’s Disease (after the usual “is it IBS debate” within the medical profession). It was centred mainly around the join between my small and large intestines (a common location) and had caused a stricture. Despite this I spent many years in remission.

In the last few years my medical life has become more complex with new issues arising. Most of them  are very definitely not black or white.

It started with the dramatic fall in my platelet count that has never recovered (thrombocytopenia). Was it really as a side effect of the Azathioprine I had been taking for 8 years? You would expect it to have bounced back when I stopped the drug. Is it related to my spleen becoming enlarged? Could this be the cause of the platelets issue instead? Two bone marrow biopsies later and there is still no definitive answer.

Next there was the incident where new blood vessels had grown in my esophagus and then burst. A subsequent x-ray showed a blood clot had formed in my portal vein (thrombosis) which had increased the pressure in the veins higher up. Most likely cause of the clot? The current theory is it’s the result of peritonitis following a perforated bowel operation in….1979! Really? That long ago? Apparently there is always a risk of PVT during any surgery. I’ve also seen research that once you have Crohn’s patients you are more susceptible to clots.

As a result of the above incident it was suggested that I might have Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis (PSC) I had a fibro-scan on my liver which showed signs of cirrhosis. What caused that? It certinly wasn’t alcohol related as I drink very little. Is it linked to that blood clot? I then had a liver biopsy and, thankfully, it showed no PSC.

What caused my recent jaundice incident last January? I felt no pain whatsoever only violent shivering and turning yellow. It must have been gallstone related but this is usually accompanied by the most excruciating pain. Again there is a potentially a link between Crohn’s and the increased likelihood of developing gallstones.

…and so to my latest consultation. Yet another puzzle – how to explain a rising calprotectin level with a colonoscopy, and biopsies, that showed I’m in remission.

…and not forgetting the reason I had that second colonoscopy – to see if there was any evidence of the strictures which showed up on the MRI scan, which there wasn’t. Another conundrum and one that had also happened back in 2012.

…and, of course, there’s the biggest grey area in the room – what causes Crohn’s Disease?

I’m not going to lose any sleep over the above. What’s done is done. It’s more out of curiosity that I would like definitive answers. In an ideal world I’d get a gastroenterologist, a hepatologist and a haematologist in a room together and let them reach a concensus on likely causes. That isn’t going to happen anytime soon…….

…but maybe the combination of conditions would at least give me a winning hand playing “Illness Top Trumps”

 

Do you mind an audience?

Gastro Appointment – Guy’s Hospital – 20th February 2017

I knew this was going to be an “interesting” consultation and it even started in a strange way. Would you expect to be greeted by a live violinist in the waiting room? Whilst I applaud the hospital for trying something different I’m not sure what it did for other patient’s stress levels. It didn’t help mine.

Having been waiting for over an hour a nurse appeared and announced the clinic was running 90 minutes late. Maybe she had made an earlier announcement but was drowned out by the violin. I knew I would be in for an even longer wait as I had requested to see my usual Consultant.

When I was finally shown into his room, he apologised for the delay and we started working through my list.

1 – Calprotectin result – previously 512. Had now risen to 895. I thought this was not unexpected as I was starting to feel a certain amount of pain when food passed across my anastomosis and through the transverse colon.

2 – Dependent upon the above – have you discussed further investigation? Barium enema? We had agreed before Christmas that, dependent upon the calprotectin result, further investigation could be needed. He favoured doing another colonoscopy.

3 – Run through the last follow-up letter with translation. What are implications of fistulas and adhesions?  We went through the letter and made sure I understood the medical terms. I was concerned that the mention of fistulas, strictures and adhesions meant only one thing – surgery. He responded that the possibility of fistulas was the most concerning; adhesions were to be expected but he was still was struggling to understand the apparent differences between the MRI and what he had physically seen during the colonoscopy. Strictures should have appeared on the camera.

I asked if it was possible for the Crohn’s to have moved from my small intestine to my colon. He said that it did not usually happen. A repeat colonoscopy would look for this. He asked if I minded having an audience as they were running a visit for ten overseas gastroenterologists to show how endoscopies were carried out at St.Thomas’. I really wasn’t fussed and it meant that I had the date set there and then. (Wonder if they will film it for YouTube. Would be taking selfies to another level).

4 – Plan for treatment – start Crohn’s medications. The most likely treatment would be one of the “MABs”. We discussed my previous experience with Infliximab and that was duly noted on my medical file. I wondered if I ended up needing regular infusions whether these could be carried out locally rather than needing a trip to London each time. He said they would encourage that but would still keep control of my case.

5 – Recent trip to A&E with jaundice. Violent shivering. Nausea. Turning yellow. Ultrasound scan 21st February. Need to make sure results are passed on. I quickly ran through my recent trip to our local A&E. He was surprised that during the whole incident I felt no pain. I mentioned I would be having an ultrasound scan the following day. (See below)

6 – Did East Surrey liaise with St. Thomas’? Did blood test results get passed over from East Surrey? There had been no contact with East Surrey. Something for me to chase up when I went there for the ultrasound.

7 – Hb looked low to me. He was not concerned about my Hb

8 – Do the treatment pathways change with age ie. over 60. Have any studies been done into the needs of the “older” patient? The main consideration would be the type of drugs used and their effect on an immune system that weakens with age.

9 – Opportunities for doing some more public speaking. Taking year off of work, maybe longer. There were plenty of opportunities. The danger would be becoming overused! I explained that I wanted to do something that would help the cause of Crohn’s patients.

10 – Not felt well for last 2 days. ED. Taking more Loperamide to try and combat. Have any patients reported that Loperamide from different manufacturers having varying levels of efficacy? I had been suffering bouts of having to rush off to the bathroom and it was the uncertaintity of the cause which I struggled with – virus, crohn’s, BAM or dodgy food. He suggested that I should go and see my GP to arrange a prescription for Questran (a bile acid sequestrant) so that it was available should I decide to start taking it. I had wondered if it was possible that different Loperamide makes could be causing my present problem? This rang a bell. He suggested I put it to the test by using the different makes in turn and noting the outcome.

I then went off to find the Endoscopy section to try and pick up the colonoscopy prep but would first need a time and date for the procedure. After a lot of ringing around the very tenacious nurse managed to get it all sorted out. Colonoscopy planned for 10:00am Saturday 11th March. The Endoscopy Unit were currently reviewing how the prep would be dispensed so I was given a prescription to take down to the Outpatient Pharmacy.

Roll on 11th March……

Ultrasound Scan – East Surrey Hospital – 21st February 2017

In complete contrast to yesterday’s delays, I arrived at the Imaging Unit early, waited five minutes and was then shown into the ultrasound suite.

They had the luxury of warmed lubricating gel! The scan took around 10 minutes during which I discussed with the sonographer what I would expect her to see – a large gallstone (first seen in 2014) and an enlarged spleen. At first the gallstone wasn’t apparent but when she applied the scanning head from a different position it appeared, except it was now a group of small stones. She wanted to see if they were mobile so got me to stand next to the US unit and then jump up and down. (I’m pleased they don’t get you to do this during a colonoscopy.) The stones had moved to the bottom of the gallbladder. The whole procedure was completed before my due appointment time.

I mentioned that I needed to get a copy of the report sent to my consultant at St.Thomas’. The sonographer asked me to return to waiting area and she would print off a copy of the report for me to take away.

Old Dog, New Tricks

A post because of Crohn’s, not about it.

Whatever else you can say about Crohn’s Disease it certainly does give you the chance of new experiences, mostly unpleasant, to be honest. I won’t list the nasty ones here as they are covered in the video at the end of this post. I thought I’d record how I dealt with this opportunity in case others get a similar chance to raise awareness of IBD.

It’s something I’d wanted to do for a while. I suppose it stems from a reawakening of the “performing” instinct that first showed itself when I was  in a band. That was around the time I was diagnosed with Crohn’s.

mav_lak_2In this instance I really wasn’t sure what to expect. A fellow patient at St. Thomas’ Hospital was due to talk to some undergraduate nurses, about “Living with IBD”, but then found that they were double booked that day. Would I step in and do it instead? Of course I would, after all how difficult would it be to talk to a few nurses? The date was set for 5 weeks time.

I wouldn’t need any preparation. I’d lived with IBD long enough to write a book. I would just turn up and talk, or so I thought. The last thing I wanted was to read from a script but, after some more thinking, decided the least I should list out all the topics that needed discussing.

Years ago I dismissed mind maps as more “management clap trap” and then actually drew one and have been sold on them ever since. It would help clarify my thinking. Here’s what I came up with :

mind_mapAt this point  I found out that there would be around 200 nurses, in a proper lecture theatre and  I would be talking at the end of the afternoon. It dawned on me that to do the subject justice, and not short change the nurses, I would at least need some notes and something to keep everyone awake. I tried doing a run through, just using notes, and it was terrible – stilted, hesitant, repetitive…..  I would have to write the talk out word-for-word, the very thing I didn’t want to do.

I find that simply reading through what I have written doesn’t pick up  over used words or even ones that are missing. Much better to hear it being read. I found that the software I use has the facility to convert the text to speech and save it as an audio file in iTunes. I can then listen to it on my iPod.

After several iterations, including two read throughs to my wife, I was finally happy with the contents. Maybe if I then listened to it endlessly it would become engrained in my memory and I would not need notes.

After half-a-dozen listenings it hadn’t worked. I would have to work from a script after all…..

When I got to the theatre, with a real live audience, it suddenly became a lot easier. I did use the notes but just to make sure I didn’t forget anything (which I still did). I had taken a small camera with me but unfortunately didn’t get there in time to set it up properly so the sound wasn’t brilliant.

The resulting video was rather long, all in one go, so I’ve split it into three parts. Of the three I think that the second one covering surgery and stomas is the most representative. I’ll let you judge the result.

Kings College Hospital, Lecture Theatre