Category Archives: crohn’s

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.


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 trest 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.

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).

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

Medical Records

This post has been prompted by the topics for #patientchat discussion on Twitter, “Medical Records” (#Tweetchat – Friday 4th August 2017 13:00 EST 18:00 BST).

I have touched on this subject before but it’s always worth revisiting. These are my experiences within three UK NHS Hospital Trusts and span 40 years.

These are the topics set for the #patientchat discussion

T1: Do you have access to your Electronic Health Records (EHRs)? If so, does that info help you actively share in your healthcare decision making?

T2: What are benefits to patients being able to view the notes that doctors, nurses and other clinicians write after a visit?

T3a: Do you sometimes find the amount and type of info available in your EHRs overwhelming and/or incomprehensible?

T3b: If so, what are some ways to make it easier to decipher and use in your decision making?

T4: What are your tips for keeping your healthcare records organized? Do you use any resources?

T5: Is it important to request past medical records from your doctors and keep copies for yourself?

T6: What do you think some of the barriers are to implementing EHRs? How can we work together to overcome them?

Ideal World vs. Reality

In an ideal world each of us would have our full medical record available in a universally readable format that could be easily accessed by any medical professional that is treating us.

Now let’s look at the real world. If you are a relatively new patient who hasn’t moved hospital and not had an in-patient stay then you may indeed have a complete record, held electronically, on an IT system. If, however, you are a long term patient who has moved between GPs and hospitals and spent time as an in-patient then the situation is far more complicated. You are likely to have a mixture of hand written notes and observations, type written letters and, more recently, computer generated letters and test reults. There are also x-rays and scans to consider.

The above does not address the issue of universal access. The last attempt in the UK to implement a system was NpFIT (The National Programme for IT in the NHS), a project initiated by the Labour government in 2002 and cancelled some years later having spent in the region of £12bn and having delivered nothing. Government backed IT projects are notorious for being disaster areas.

Patient Rights

Where does that leave the patient?

In the UK you have a right to access your medical records. Since 2000 I have received copies of the follow-up letters from outpatient appointments  that the consultant sends to my GP. This may be sufficient for your needs but I needed to fill in a lot of missing detail for the book I was writing. For the payment of a fee you can obtain copies of all your medical records . Requests forms are available online for each Healthcare Trust and as I had been treated by 3 different Trusts I filled in 3 different forms and sent them off with the relevant payments (between £20 and £50 depending upon whether you just require medical notes or want copies of x-rays and scans as well).

A series of packets duly arrived and I was amazed to find they really  did contain ALL my medical notes from October 1977 to the present. Two Trusts chose to send hard copies whilst the third had scanned the notes to a pdf file of over 700 pages. I also had loadable files for CT, MRI and US scans. The only things missing were certain early x-rays.

Information Overload?

My initial reaction was “information overload” but over the space of a few nights I sorted the documents by type and date order and picked out the “juicy bits”. Those bits that explained some long, unanswered questions about my treatment. Probably the most fascinating were the ward notes from the times I spent in hospital. These are not usually documents that you get to read.
The discs containing CT and MRI scans looked a bigger challenge but I found a great piece of software called OsiriX which opens and views the files. (The Lite version of the software is available as a free download). Hours of fun looking at 3D visualisations of your innards.

What use are they?

What can you do with, potentially, a huge amount of very detailed medical notes? Whilst they might be of academic interest to the patient and provide a fascinating insight into how you arrived at your current state they are not a lot of use to your medical professionals due to the sheer bulk of the information. This is especially true if you are seeing a new consultant who needs a succinct overview of your medical history and current issues or if you end up in A&E (ER) where they need to start treatment as soon as possible.

It gets considerably more complex if you are suffering from multiple conditions. Initially I put together all the major events into a spreadsheet table. Going through the process certainly gave me a good grasp of my overall health and I have ended up a much better informed patient. This helps greatly when you need to take decisions about the course of future treatment. It helps clarify the most important issues.

If you are still find it difficult to work out how your health threads come together then draw a diagram. I’ve tried a number of different format. There are a couple of examples below :

In Practice

In February I ended up in our local A&E (ER) Department as I had turned yellow. The first person I saw was a triage nurse who asked lots of questions about health conditions, history  and medications. When we had finished running through the various ailments she complimented me on my knowledge. (Definitely a result of researching and tabulating my health records)

Next I saw an A&E Registrar. Who asked the same questions but what would he have concluded if I hadn’t been able to fill in the details? He would have been confronted with a patient with a large scar up the midline and an appendectomy incision. He wouldn’t have been aware why the large scar was there and would have assumed my appendix had been taken out. He would be unaware that I had Crohn’s disease, that there were additional veins growing in my esophagus (varices), that my spleen was enarged or that my platelet count was around 60. Valuable time could have been lost trying to investigate the wrong problems.

Do It Yourself

As a result of my A&E visit I wondered – is there was a standard, minimum set of data that should be available? Is there a standard format for the data? I searched the internet and could find nothing. I suppose a good starting point would be the questions the triage nurse had asked – personal details; current medication; current medical conditions; and any known allergies.

There are, of course, the likes of SOS Talisman bracelets which have some very basic information engraved on, or contained within, them. There are several subscription services which will hold your medical information and can then be accessed via a unique code you wear on a bracelet or dog tag, but these appear to be US based only and the data held was not in sufficient detail.  How feasible would it be to produce a standalone, wearable device?

I had a go at making one using a USB bracelet. I settled upon two top level documents – i) a simple, overall summary plus ii) a detailed table that recorded each appointment or procedure. These documents are stored as pdf files and linked to various back-up documents such as laboratory or histological reports.

USB Bracelet

There is one problem. Security. Does an NHS computer allow the reading of an external USB stick or is access restricted to protect from viruses etc? (Particulary relevant since the recent cyber attack). I have a feeling this is a non-runner so I’m favouring storing the files on a secure server and potentially accessing them via a QR code on a dog tag (or even a wrist tattoo)

Future Developments

There are more references appearing where patients are recording their consultant appointments or having consultations via Skype. Would these audio and video files need to be kept as part of your medical record? Do medical professionals expect to have access to any recordings you make?

Watch this space…..

Should It Stay or Should It Go?

At the end of April I recorded a visit to London to see my gastro consultant (see post “50 Shades of Grey”). We discussed the “blip” last February  when I turned yellow. The keywords being – local A&E, jaundice, gallstones. There was the added complication that my local hospital was taking care of this issue. Split responsibilities and patient records tend to slow the treatment process down.

Back in November 2016, at my annual Upper GI endoscopy, I had asked if it would be a good idea to have another Fibroscan, a specialist ultrasound scan that measures liver stiffness (cirrhosis). The last one had been in November 2012 and it would be nice to know if there had been further deterioration. It was agreed that it would be a good idea but the request form was never issued.

The need to know about worsening cirrhosis had now become more urgent. My gastro filled in the request form as I watched. A few days later the appointment came through – 4th September. That long? Four months just for a very simple 5 minute test?

Friday 7th July 2017 – East Surrey Hospital Outpatients

When the “blip” happened I had gone down to our local A&E and spent the night there being monitored. Afterwards there was a follow-up appointment with an upper GI consultant locally (see post called “Time Bomb No.2, please” – April 2017). A further ultrasound scan was ordered and he said he would be happy to see me again to discuss the results. The scan took place on 12th May, the day NHS IT systems were hit by a virus. Usually I would expect to take a copy of the report away with me but not this time. I let a month go by then asked my GP surgery if they had seen the missing report. No, but a day later they had obtained a copy and rang me to let me know. (They provide an exceptional service)

The report stated “could suggest chronic cholecystitis” (inflammation of the gallbladder). Dr. Google was divided upon this condition. Some sites declared it serious and in need of treatment straight away; others said that if the patient was asymptomatic then it could be left alone. I rang the consultant’s secretary and she organised the follow-up appointment for 7th July.

(I had been under the impression, after the first appointment, that the consultant was going to discuss the case with my “doctor” (gastro consultant at GSTT) and would make a direct referral to Kings College Hospital Liver Unit. Wrong on both counts. The “doctor” he meant was my GP and the referral would be made via the GP after the follow-up scan. Doh! I had assumed that the process was already under way.)

I asked him specifically what concerns he had that would require surgery to be carried out in a specialist liver unit. He replied that they were : liver cirrhosis, low platelets, the adhesions from previous laparatomies and a possible bleed. No arguing with that. He also said that if I had a recurrence of the jaundice or pain in a specific area then I should go to our local A&E and they would take the decision on whether to treat me or transport me to London. We left it that a letter would be sent to my GP asking him to make the necessary arrangements. I thought it might be best to discuss it with my GP rather than just let the process take its course.

In the meantime I wanted to find out if there were any other hospitals I should consider along with KCH so I posted a question on FB in the PSC and BAM support forums. A number of other units were suggested but KCH came out well and it would be easier for me to get to.  Then I was recommended a consultant who works between St.Thomas’ and KCH. This would be the best of both worlds as they would have access to all my medical notes. I now had a name and contact details for the doctor I want to be referred to.

Tuesday 19th July 2017

My GP rang  this afternoon and we agreed that he would put the referral process in motion. He was of the opinion that this could have been done hospital to hospital.

Whilst I’m feeling fit and in no pain then I’m quite happy to leave the gallbladder well alone but I want to be prepared in case it all starts to go wrong.  It should be an interesting conversation with the consultant/surgeon as to his recommended way forward, especially when we start to discuss complicating factors – the minor annoyances of PVT, PSC, Splenomagely, thrombocytopenia and BAM.  I’m sure he would be interested in the results of the Fibroscan.

(That’s quite a list of complicating factors. As I’ve mentioned before it could well be a winning hand in “chronic condition top trumps”)


It’s World IBD Day, again

It doesn’t seem a year ago when we were all wishing each other “Happy World IBD Day” (however inappropriate that may sound to non-IBDers).

To mark the day I’ve been inspired by last night’s (18th May) excellent #IBDHour chat very ably hosted by Richard Harris (@doobarz) and Shell Lawes (@shelllawes). The topic was the medications that we take or are offered for treating IBD. I’ve really taken to the format of TweetChats, the only downside being the constraint of trying to do justice to complex issues in just 140 characters. (That’s also an upside because you have to think more carefully about what you are typing)

One thing that was clear from last night is how differently we all react to the “common” drugs – salazopyrin, prednisolone, azathioprine, Remicade etc. There was some shock that I had prescribed steroids for twenty years but that wasn’t the whole story. The very first drug I was given was “Nacton”.  “Nacton?” Yes, a drug for peptic ulcers. Things could only get better…

I thought I might tell the story of my diagnosis and first surgery without the 140 character constraint. If you click on the image below it will open the first chapter from my book  – “Crohn’s Disease – Wrestling the Octopus”, as a pdf, in a new window. (It is still draft at this stage and the eagle eyed will notice some punctuation that needs changing)


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”


Next steps

This is the follow-up post to “Where do we go from here?” posted on 3rd December 2016. (…and my record for future reference….)

Gastro Appointment – Guy’s Hospital 12th December 2016

As the date for the appointment drew closer my stress level increased. Not from the potential medical implications (though some might doubt this!) but the pure logistics of getting to London by 10:20am. It shouldn’t be a problem until you realise we have to rely on Southern Rail actually running a train. As it turned out my train was exactly on time but afterwards there were no more heading to London for 2 hours.

Having arrived at Guy’s Hospital with five minutes to spare I was greeted by a nurse who explained that the clinic was running 45 minutes late. I asked her to put a note on my file that I wanted to see my usual consultant (the top man). The wait increased to just over an hour when I heard my consultant calling my name. TIme to see if there were some answers. I produced my list of questions/comments.

We started out by discussing the outcome of the MDM. Had they been able to reconcile the apparent contradiction between the colonoscopy results and the MRI scan? No, they were at a loss to explain the differences.

The MRI report noted a 100mm stricture in the transverse colon and another in the ascending colon. Neither had been apparent from the scoping. The scan also showed adhesions, one of which was between  intestine and bladder. This could potentially lead to a fistula developing between the two. The tell tale sign would be gas when passing urine. That was a new one on me and certainly not something I had experienced so far.

The word that worried me was “fistula” but he pointed out that it was a possibility not a certainty.

The options left were to repeat the colonoscopy, or the MRI scan, but a barium enema, which is a test designed to look at the colon, would be preferable. (Not sure for whom. I still remember the last one over 30 years ago.) Rather than going straight to another procedure he suggested that we carry out a calprotectin test and if the result was the same or higher than last time (512) then it would be time to start practicising the buttock clench, so vital for the enema.

He asked how I felt generally. My answer was “very well” apart from every 10 days or so getting an upset stomach for half a day then back to normal. There was also an incident when I seemed to be leaking fresh blood but it only lasted a day and I concluded it was purely mechanical, maybe a burst blood vessel. He agreed with my conclusion.

I explained that I was keen to remain drug free having been taking no Crohn’s medication since 2010 (post-ileostomy). Was that an option with mild inflammation? Yes. The aim would be to start treatment early enough, to avoid surgery, should the inflammation worsen. (The knife is always a threat though). In line with my aim of not taking any new drugs I hadn’t been to see my GP about starting Questran for Bile Acid Malabsorption. I would remain on just Loperamide and adjust the dosage accordingly.

The one question I forgot to ask was “Does my reaction to Azathioprine (bone marrow suppression) suggest that some of other common drugs may be unsuitable?” That will have to wait for the next appointment.

I would be having my annual upper GI endoscopy at St.Thomas’ the following week and was wondering if we should also be monitoring my liver for stiffening (PSC). He said I should ask the endoscopist as it was their specialist area. The visit would also give me a chance to drop off the calprotectin sample to the path lab. I would then need to email my consultant in mid-January to get the results. Fingers crossed for <512. Clench.

At the end of the appointment I mentioned that I had eliminated a major element of stress by no longer commuting to London and have virtually retired. As I now had time in my hands I would be keen to do something for the IBD Community.

What is so nice about these appointments is that you never feel rushed. Every question gets a considered answer and all decisions are made jointly. Excellent.

After the appointment it was off to have lunch with a fellow IBD sufferer and then on to meet up with an old colleague for a coffee before attempting to get a train home.

Living with a timebomb

I’m not trying to scare anyone with this story. It is very unlikely you will experience the same but it is worth being aware of yet another part of the rich tapestry that Crohn’s Disease can weave for us.

This is what happened…..

Monday 28th May 2012 – Outpatient Appointment at Guy’s.

The original intention was to go into work as usual then catch the Tube down to London Bridge in time for my 10 o’clock appointment. I wasn’t feeling so good so decided to catch a later train and go direct to the hospital. I’m used to an early start with virtually no traffic so rather underestimated how long it would take to get to Redhill station from home. By the time I got to the station I could hear the train pulling into the platform. I didn’t realise that it would wait there 5 minutes before leaving so I tried to run and realised just how bad I felt. My chest started heaving and my heart pumping. I really thought I was having a heart attack. Once I was on the train I managed to take some deep breaths and gradually return to some type of normality.

I made my way to the Outpatients Dept. in time for my appointment but then had a long wait before seeing my consultant. When I was finally called in I was relieved to find that I was seeing the top man, not one of the registrars. He did apologise for the long wait.

We went through my list of queries and eventually discussed  the issue I was having with passing a jet black liquid from my back end. He asked me to get a sample for analysis which I thought would be easy but no luck. He also asked me to make an appointment to repeat the colonoscopy to verify the results of the MRI scan.

Eventually I was on my way home and by now the temperature was high. I bought a bottle of cold drink and then boarded the train back to Redhill. By the time I got home I was feeling pretty exhausted and went to have a lie down to recover. Around six o’clock I started to feel sick so disappeared into the toilet and then it happened… (don’t read any further if you are squeamish)

I brought up a large amount of what looked like redcurrant jelly but was clearly freshly congealed blood. I must have gone into shock for a few minutes, thinking “What do I do now?” (Not like me at all. I usually come quickly to terms with what is happening, decide the best actions to take and get on with it but this was like nothing I had experienced before and for a while I couldn’t cope).

I came to the conclusion that this was definitely a 999 moment. I heard my wife coming back from feeding our ponies so called out to her to ring the number. She made the call and then responded to the long series of questions that you now get asked by the operator. The decision to send an ambulance was made and my wife then hurried herself to get together some things into a bag before the ambulance pulled up our sideway. She didn’t quite finish as the ambulance arrived incredibly quickly. When she opened the door she recognised the paramedics as the ones who had taken me into hospital the last time we had reason to call 999 (see “Post Op – Back Home” page – 12th November). They came in to see what state I was in, took one look at the blood surrounding me and, to put me at ease, told me that it was only a small amount!

I was loaded into the ambulance and then went through various tests before we set off. They were obviously concerned at my state and said that my blood pressure was very low. They put me on a drip and the driver said “I think we’ll go for the siren”…….

A few minutes later we arrived at East Surrey Hospital and I was taken straight into the Accident and Emergency assessment area and was immediately seen by a doctor to make sure I was stable. Over the next hour or so I was seen by a couple more doctors whilst they decided the best ward for me to be sent to. Their decision was to admit me to the Medical Assessment Unit where I underwent further assessment. By this time my sister had turned up to take my wife home so we said our goodbyes and I waited to see where I would end up.

My wife returned home and had to clear up the blood from the floor. I’m so lucky to have someone so tough to support me when things are going wrong.

The decision was taken to send me to the ward which specialises in gastroenterology and I was duly taken to this new ward. I then saw the doctor on duty who made sure I was comfortable and worked out what drips I needed to be on.

Tuesday 29th May 2012 – the rest of the night was spent undergoing regular checks on my blood pressure and temperature. I didn’t get much sleep but was just happy to be in the best place, given the condition I was in.

During the day I saw various doctors who were trying to decide which tests I should undergo. The immediate priority was to have an endoscopy (camera down throat) to see where the blood had come from. They tried to get me onto that day’s list and so I wasn’t allowed to eat anything. Unfortunately an emergency case took priority and at six o’clock I was told that I could eat some supper. Apparently the doctor was very surprised at how calmly I took the fact that I wouldn’t be having the test done that day and said she wouldn’t have been so laid back.

They decided that I needed to have a blood transfusion as my blood count had fallen to 6.6. The normal figure for a man is around 14. I therefore had two drips going into the cannula in my left arm.

Wednesday 30th May 2012 to Monday 4th June  – The blood transfusion had brought my blood count up to 8.6, still very low. Over the next few days I had the upper GI endoscopy. I think the doctors were expecting it to show that I had an ulcer, which had burst, or that the Crohn’s inflammation had spread into my stomach. What they actually found were esophageal varices, prominent veins in the lower third of the esophagus and usually related to alcoholism! I looked them up on the internet and found that there is a possible link between them and the Azathioprine drug that I had been on for seven years.

The next step was therefore to have an ultrasound scan to look at my liver as sometimes damage to one of the large veins could route the blood supply into the esophagus causing the varices. I asked what the outcome of this test was and it sounded like nothing particularly untoward showed up apart from a gall stone and a slightly enlarged spleen. I would ask again later, just to make sure I got that right.

The whole ward then went into a sort of 4 day limbo as it was the extended holiday weekend to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The number of doctors was greatly reduced and were only seeing patients by exception. I resigned myself to not progressing any further with an explanation of my problem until the following Tuesday.

The phlebotomists did their usual rounds every day and I later found out that my blood count had dropped to 8.0 from 8.6. Not good and would prolong my stay in hospital. The ward sister said that the doctors would be doing a proper ward round on the following Tuesday so I had plenty of time to get a list of questions together. I resigned myself to not progressing any further with an explanation of my problem until then.

Tuesday 5th June 2012 – I knew at some point I would encounter the consultant that I had emailed around a year ago saying that, basically, I was now being treated by St.Thomas’ so not to bother to make any further appointments for me. I had a very good reason for doing this and it is recorded in my book (when it finally gets published).

I’m not going to go into all the details of this encounter but suffice to say that initially he would not look me in the eye and my decision, a year ago, was clearly still bugging him. I reiterated my original reason for leaving his care and this may not have helped the situation. (My decision to move to St.Thomas’ was not taken lightly as it is far easier for me to get to East Surrey Hospital from home, approx. 10 minutes, than it is to get to St.Thomas’). At one point it was suggested that maybe it would be best for me to be put in an ambulance and transported up to London.

I was now in the position that I was under the care of East Surrey for my emergency admission but the long term treatment of Crohn’s was still with St.Thomas’. At the end of a long and detailed discussion on what my current situation was caused by, whilst the junior doctors listened on, we ended up shaking hands and agreeing that we should do what is best for my long term health. Enough said on this matter, let’s move onto possible diagnosis, tests required and best place to have them carried out. So clearly I was not in a position to think about discharge yet.

The recurring terms he used were primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC) and portal hypertension. He thinks that these are symptoms of a malfunctioning immune system and are also linked to my thrombocytopaenia (low platelet count) and enlarged spleen. I had thought that this last condition had been brought on by the use of Azathioprine but he was sceptical at this.

After the ward round was complete I called one of the junior doctors over and asked how to spell “that primary thing the consultant mentioned” so I could look it up. She replied that it might not be a good idea at present. I decided to park the research for the day but happened to mention it to my sister who immediately looked it up and rang me back. It was all a little scary. Ultimately, if PSC was diagnosed, the long term prognosis – liver transplant! The only way of getting a definite diagnosis would be to carry out a liver biopsy.

With regards to where the tests should be done and the subsequent treatment – I’m not sure what we concluded. I think that we agreed that due to the complex nature of my Crohn’s I would be better remaining under St.Thomas’ as they have more extensive facilities than East Surrey. I wouldrevisit this subject tomorrow on the ward round.

I try to keep a cool head at all times and remain rational so I thought I’d taken the above information in my stride but a little voice at the back of my head kept saying “you’re only keeping calm because you don’t understand the full implications of what you’ve just been told”. When I caught sight of the IBD Nurse I asked her if she could answer some questions, including what were all the long words the consultant were using. She could tell by some of my questions that no one has ever sat down and gone through some of the basic concepts of Crohn’s and its implications.

I got to thinking about this later and she had hit the nail on the head, one of her many skills! (which also includes an encyclopaedic, some might say Wikipedic, knowledge of medical terms and conditions).

No one has ever talked through the bigger Crohn’s picture. For years I thought it was simply an inflammation that caused diarrhea and some pain for which you took steroids. Some years later I ended up with a stricture so I was then aware of another possible complication. The results of the CT scan that I had done three years, or so ago, then introduced me to the concept of fistulas and having to have a stoma. It would be good to be able to spend some time talking this through with a specialist and understanding other possible symptoms and potential effects on other parts of the body. Ultimately I would like to get a clear understanding of the likely effects on my potential life expectancy or quality. I could then use the information to decide when to retire. Maybe I should talk to an actuary.

Back to the ward – it was decided that I should be given another 2 units of blood. Since I hadn’t had any for a week they needed to do another “crossmatch” as they only last 7 days. (All part of ensuring you get the right blood type).

Wednesday 6th June 2012 – that must have been the quietest night so far on the ward. I slept until about 3:00am but then couldn’t get back to sleep until around 7:00am.

The phlebotomist turned up to take more blood samples and she was followed by the registrar and junior doctors on their round. I had quickly made a list of things to ask them – the top question was “plan for escape”.

I was somewhat taken aback when the Registrar said that as long as today’s blood test showed an Hb of over 10 then I could go home. Today! I really wasn’t expecting that. I had told everyone I was in until at least the weekend or possibly would be transferred to St.Thomas’. I’ve now had to wait until around 1 o’clock for my score.

I discussed various things with the Registrar, including going over again what the endoscopy and ultrasound tests had shown. For my long term care they are suggesting that I remain under St.Thomas’ and would be liaising with my specialist there to make sure the necessary test results were passed over. One of the junior doctors was tasked with making this contact.

Thursday 7th June 2012 – back home. My first good night’s sleep for 10 days. Time to take stock. The discharge letter made interesting reading but took a fair amount of translation. The bulk of it listed what they didn’t find so I was rather confused as to what I have actually got wrong with me. The only definite observations were an enlarged spleen and a gallstone.

I read through the leaflets that came with the new drugs. They’d given me – Propanolol – a beta blocker used to prevent stomach bleeding in patients with high blood pressure in their liver or swollen blood vessels in their gullet; and Omeprazole – a proton pump inhibitor to reduce the acid in one’s stomach. Reading through the possible side effects of these two drugs I could end up with insomnia and nightmares. Fingers crossed.

…and since then? – I was put under the care of a liver specialist and underwent a liver biopsy to check for cirrhosis. The result show mild stiffening, something to keep in mind. I now have yearly visits to the endoscopy dept to check out the varices. If they have regrown then the first visit is followed by another two or three when they “obliterate” the veins with rubber bands. Next visit January 2017.

I inevitably turned to the internet. The first page I found, when I searched for PVT and Crohn’s, started with the words “if the patient survives….” Another one said “inevitably fatal”. Not a good start and I was only partly comforted by realising that the articles were written many years ago and by hoping that treatment must have moved on leaps and bounds. If I was to suffer another major bleed from the varices it’s a question of how quick I can get to a hospital and have a transfusion.

It’s like living with a timebomb.

A little further down the road?

5th September 2016 – Gastro Appointment – Guy’s Hospital – 10:20am

…the story so far can be found in the post “Crying Wolf”

Today’s appointment was to get the results of the MRI scan I had five weeks, or so, ago and then work out the way forward to get my health back on track.

It was the first appointment following my retirement so no chance to just leave the office for an hour to attend. It would need a special trip and chance to suffer the reduced timetable operated by Southern Rail. Having left home in plenty of time I arrived at Guy’s only two minutes before the due time. Almost immediately my name was called for me to be weighted. I had lost around 6 kilos since my last appointment. I asked the nurse to put a note on my records that I wanted to see my usual doctor. “No problem”.

Being weighed allows you into the inner sanctum, the inner waiting area, from where you are collected by your consultant. A student approached me and asked if I would be prepared to take part in some genetics based IBD research. I’m always more than happy to help so he left me a document to read and would talk to me after I had seen the consultant.

The waiting area was remarkably quiet. It’s been jam packed on previous visits and I’ve waited over an hour to be called. I’ve been preparing to give a talk on “Living with IBD” as part of a lecture for undergraduate nurses on chronic conditions. I had intended to do it completely off the cuff but I have come to the conclusion that is unrealistic. I’ve written out what I want to stay and the software has then converted it to speech so that I can listen to it on my iPod. This seemed like a good time to give it another listen.

I was miles away, submerged in the narrative about weight loss and fatigue in IBD, and then realised my name was being called. It was my consultant. I apologised for appearing to be on another planet and we made our way into the consulting room. By now it was 10:50am.

I had my obligatory list of questions with me :

  1. Results of colonoscopy 13th July 2016 – “ongoing mild colonic Crohn’s Disease. Previous colonoscopy” – 25th February 2015 – “mild, patchy erythema throughout the colon, however no ulceration seen”. Has there been a change? Does it need to be treated?
  1. Results of MRI scan?
  1. BAM – could this be causing weight loss etc. Treatment – Questran (low tolerance) Colesevelam.
  1. Blood test organised for 2 weeks. Have asked for cholesterol to be checked

Starting with the 1) it did suggest that the Crohn’s has returned albeit mildly. I mentioned that my last calprotectin level had been elevated – around 425. He called up all my results and drew a graph which showed that the last result did not follow the trend. “Collect a sample pot on your way out and we’ll re-run the test in case that was a rogue value. Let me know when you drop the sample in so that I can keep an eye out for the result.”

I asked about potential drugs to treat the inflammation. (Usually I would have been kept on a maintenance dose of Azathioprine but the onset of thrombocytopenia back in 2008 had made this a non-starter). He explained that there were drugs that specifically targetted the colon that were used to treat ulcerative colitis. He mentioned a form of Budesonide. I have subsequently looked this up and found a NICE document about Budesonide multi-matrix (MMX/Cortiment). It is formulated to release at a controlled rate throughout the colon to minimise systemic absorption. The licensed dose is 9 mg in the morning, for up to 8 weeks. It was licensed in October 2014 for inducing remission in mild to moderate active ulcerative colitis in adults for whom aminosalicylate treatment is not sufficient.

2) What did the MRI scan show? Strictures in my colon but they hadn’t shown up on the colonoscopy. Usually a colonoscopy trumps an MRI scan so this was an unexpected result. He proposed to take the results of both to the next MDM (multi-disciplinary meeting) to try and come up with an explanation.

It also showed adhesions but the fact they existed was not news. Since shortly after my reversal I had been complaining of an ache around the anastomosis .

3) Given the very variable nature of my digestive system and my recent weight loss I wondered if it was finally time to bite the bullet and start taking a sequestrant to treat my severe bile acid malabsorption. I had been fighting shy of taking yet more drugs and have been controlling it Loperamide.

I asked if it would be possible to prescribe Colesevelam (the tablet form) rather than Questran (powders) as I had read many reports of the former being easier to tolerate. I was aware of the cost differential, a factor of 10. He said that for the good of the health service budget I should try the Questran first but this would be a discussion for me and my GP.

4) I mentioned that I had a blood test organised for a couple of weeks time and would send the results through to him. I had asked for a cholestrol check to be carried out.

He would organise my next appointment once the MDM had discussed my results. He then took me back to the student doing the genetic study and I spent 10 minutes answering questions and spitting (saliva into a sample tube).

Where did that get me?

I’ve learnt about the possibility of a new drug to treat the inflammation in my colon and I’ve set in motion potentially directly treating the BAM. I think I’ll leave the decision on that one until my next appointment when we have an answer on colonoscopy/MRI scan conflict.

…and in the meantime an old client has called me up to see if I would be free to do some work for them. Retirement will have lasted precisely 5 weeks…