Category Archives: Guy’s Hospital

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 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

In Case of Emergency

A few months back I ended up in our local A&E (ER) Department as I had turned yellow. The first person I saw was the triage nurse who asked me lots of questions about health conditions, history  and medications. When we had finished running through the various ailments she complimented me on my knowledge but it struck me that it would have been a different story if I had been admitted unconscious or in a confused state.

Next I saw an A&E Registrar. What would he have concluded if I had been unable 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 platelets would show up around 60, rather than 150+. Valuable time could have been lost trying to solve the wrong problems.

What actually happened it that I handed him a copy of a chart I had drawn up showing the key events in my medical history over the last 7 years. The doctor thanked me and used it as the basis for the questions he then asked.  He then added it to my medical notes. Here’s the diagram :

In the ideal world the NHS would have a comprehensive medical record for each patient, held on a central system, that could be accessed by any doctor when required. A patient’s unique identifier, probably their NHS number, could be used as the reference code. The NHS tried to implement such as system (NpFIT). It didn’t work and there’s a link to the 2014 Report at the bottom of this post.

There are, of course, the likes of SOS Talisman bracelets which have some very basic information engraved on or contained within them. Then 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 all appear to be based in the US.  What I wanted was a standalone device that would be easily wearable and accessible. A bracelet with built-in USB memory seemed to be the ideal solution. The next challenge would be how to record the information.

I searched to see if there was a proposed standard data set for NHS use but could find nothing that displayed more than the most basic data. Certainly nothing that was suitable for a patient with long term, multiple conditions. There was nothing for it but to produce my own format. I settled upon two documents – i) a simple, overall summary plus ii) a very detailed table that recorded each appointment/follow-up letter; each procedure undergone and associated report; and any other relevant items such as emails.

Key Medical Details (with links)

I had already obtained hard copies of all the medical records from the three health authorities I have been treated under and had started the task of entering the relevant sections onto a computer. The thought of entering 40 years worth of notes from scratch would have been just too daunting.

The detail (geeky) bit : initially the bulk of the data was put into a spreadsheet (Excel) using a combination of a simple scanner and text recognition software. As the task neared completion it made sense to convert from Excel to Word as this would allow me to save the document as an html file that could be read by any web browser. The external documents (reports, emails) were scanned or saved as either jpg or pdf files and then linked back to the main document.

Detailed Medical Record

Job done. I can now wear all the relevant my medical details on a simple, universally accessible wristband, rather like a tortoise carrying everything with them wherever they go.

USB Bracelet

There are issues that I haven’t addressed :

Privacy – I don’t have any issues with allowing access to my medical records confidential (if I did I wouldn’t write a blog) but I can understand that some patients would want some type of password or lock on the files.

Security – does an NHS computer allow the reading of an external USB stick or is access restricted to protect from viruses etc?

Since originally publishing this post a fellow patient suggested using a QR code to link to a remotely held copy of relevant medical details. The QR could be engraved on a pendant or bracelet but would it be obvious to medical staff how to use it? How about a QR tattoo in a prominent position? More thinking to be done…..

The 2014 Report on NpFIT failure :

*NpFIT – this proposal has been around for several years but proved impossible to implement. The link below will take you to the report outlining why the £6billion project failed.”

https://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/~rja14/Papers/npfit-mpp-2014-case-history.pdf

 

 

 

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.

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.

Guilt, Research and Planning

Guilt

I feel kind of guilty writing this post as it finds me laid back and generally at one with the world whilst I know there are many fellow IBDers who are really suffering at the moment. You only have to dip into the Crohn’s Community on SoMe to read some sad , harrowing tales.

I’ve come to terms with this guilt by telling myself that my current situation may help others realise that there will be times when life returns to relative normality. As I approach the fifth anniversary of having an ileostomy my memories of that event are starting to fade which is why………

Further Research

Have I mentioned before that I am in the process of writing a book? It will explain the route from diagnosis, in the dim and distant past, to my current state. It has a target readership of, er, one. Obviously I hope it ends up with a few more and proves of help/interest to other sufferers or even medical professionals who want to understand the patient experience from the other end of the endoscope but having said that, I am writing it primarily for…. myself. The reasons?

1)   A new challenge; something to keep the brain functioning; a chance to be creative. I want to see if I am capable of producing something that is half readable?

2)   To achieve a sort of “closure” up to this point, on the basis that once I have everything documented I can put the eBook on a virtual eShelf and leave it there

The book is nearing completion. As part of the process I have been re-reading the posts on this blog. Those covering the period from August 2010 were written as they happened. This re-visit has thrown up a few gaps in my account or need further examination. One passage in particular piqued my interest. It was a comment made by one of the team of surgeons who carried out my ileostomy almost 5 years ago. I saw him at the local hospital a few weeks after the op and he remarked on how well I looked considering “what they had done to me”. Sounded sinister. He went on to describe the operation as a “classic” and one of the “most complex they had ever carried out”. In a game of operation top trumps I’m sure this would score quite highly although the whole thing only took four and a half hours which is relatively quick compared to others I have read about. Maybe the fact it was done using open surgery, as opposed to keyhole, sped things up.

But what exactly had they “done to me”? I emailed the surgeon a few weeks ago to see if he kept records of each operation. He replied that I would need to get access to my patient file from St.Thomas’ and find the Operation Note. As he no longer worked there hospital he had no access to their system but he kindly offered to “translate” the document should I get hold of it.

Up until recently I hadn’t bothered obtaining copies of my St.Thomas’ notes as I had been studiously filing all follow-up letters as I received them and writing up accounts of appointments/procedures for this blog. However it struck me that, for completeness, I should try and get hold of the notes as they may add some detail to the narrative. I filled in a request form and took it, together with the £20 fee and proof of ID, to the Information Governance Department at St.Thomas’. I requested the complete file, with the exception of follow-up letters, and for any x-rays or scans that were available. The hospital’s target was 40 days to produce the requested information but it only took 30 days before it was ready for collection. The packet contained four CDs.

I was eager to find out exactly what was on them. Three discs contained imaging and x-ray files in a format I was unfamiliar with, DICOM. I found a software package on the web, OsiriX, that would open the files and, for non-commercial use, the Lite version could be downloaded free. The software translates the scans into 3D images. Fascinating, almost artistic. Like something out of a Hieronymus Bosch painting. Did I understand what I was looking at? To be honest, no, and I am still trying to find the optimum software settings that will make things clearer.

On the final disc was one large pdf file made up of scans of all my notes but in no particular order. 730 pages covered just under 5 years of treatment. On closer inspection there were many blank pages, mainly the back pages to reports, but even with these deleted the page count was around 650. It took a couple of evenings work to get them into some semblance of order.

I eventually found the Operation Note from October 2010 and decided to take the surgeon up on his offer to “translate” it. I hope he doesn’t regret it. I am awaiting his response so maybe he has thought better of it.

The other pages that immediately grabbed my interest were the Nurses’ notes and observations from my two in-patient stays. It was interesting to compare the nurses’ accounts with my diary entries for each day.The process of revising my original posts is taking a while. As the nights draw in it should focus the mind better.

Haematology II Guy’s Hospital – 25th August 2015

As part of my “closure” I had a routine, six monthly Haematology appointment, or Harmatology as my spell check insists. For the first time I struggled to come up with any questions to ask. I eventually managed the following :

  • Latest platelet count? Just out of curiosity as I knew it would be well outside the normal range
  • Do we need to revisit the Warfarin decision at some point in the future?
  • Do I need to continue with iron tablets?
  • Should I be prescribed more vitamin D capsules?

Answers – 56; No; ask GP to check iron and vitamin D levels

On the basis of the above we agreed that appointments could now be yearly and that suits me fine.

Planning Ahead

Time to think about what’s on the horizon. Following the pattern of the last couple of years there will be the yearly upper GI endoscopy in late October with the possibility of further procedures if they find I need variceal banding. The lead time for booking an endoscopy is six weeks. If the system is working correctly then the appointment should automtically get booked but I never leave it to chance and normally give Endoscopy Appointments a ring. I half minded to leave it this time and see what happens.

Then there’s the six monthly gastro appointment in early November for which I need to make sure I’ve got the results of a calprotectin test back….and, depending upon the result, potentially a two yearly endoscopy to see if I have managed to remain in clinical remission and to have a look at my anastomosis.

…but hold on. I’ve just realised I had a colonoscopy in February this year. Have I really managed to put Crohn’s so far to the back of my mind that I have forgotten havng a camera stuck where the sun don’t shine? Maybe it’s because I was given a larger dose of sedative than usual and was out cold for the procedure.

DIARY – Crohn’s, blood clots and low platelets

September 2013

Medically things are going OK-ish. I don’t want to tempt fate by putting it any more strongly than that.  I still have a sporadic, niggly pain around the site of my anastomosis (the bit where they joined my gut back together again in June 2011). This has been ongoing for quite a while and gets worse when I’ve been doing a lot of physical work, worn a belt too tightly or have been on my feet for a long time. My consultant thinks it’s purely mechanical and nothing to worry about.

Between now and Christmas I have four outpatient appointments and will have a chance to practice what I preach using my 8 point approach to “Managing Consultants and Appointments”.

(1) Making a List
(2) Manage Your Appointments
(3) Continuity
(4) Medical History (including copies of any recent emails)
(5) Contacting your consultant between appointments
(6) Follow-up letters
(7) Manage Your Appointments 2
(8) Keep a sense of humour

(There’s a separate post which goes into the detail if you are interested. It should be obvious which one it is – the clue is in its title).

Wednesday 25th September 2013 – Haematology Appointment – Guy’s

 The Background

This was to have been the sign-off appointment where I got handed back to gastroenterology. The “elephant in the room” however is thrombocytopenia – the relative decrease of platelets in the blood. A normal value is anywhere between 150 and 400, I’ve been well below 100 (hovering around the 60 mark) for quite a while now but not exhibited any obvious adverse effects such as bleeding profusely if I cut myself. We had decided to park the issue but when I re-read my notes from the last gastro appointment, and the subsequent follow-up letter (6) , they said that my GI would not put me on a maintenance dose of Azathioprine because it may have caused the thrombocytopenia.

That meant one less route available to me should (when) I need to start drug therapy again to control the Crohn’s. In my last post I mentioned that I would email my GI consultant (5) to ask if he was happy that this issue would remain unresolved. I sent the following and copied in to the haematologist :

“I have my next haematology appointment on Wednesday week. At the last one it was suggested that I could then be discharged back to your care, as we have done with hepatology. The fewer clinics I have to attend the better but I have one question for you regarding my thrombocytopenia from a Crohn’s standpoint.

Because I am asymptomatic and there are many possible causes of the low platelets we have “parked” further investigation. When I saw you at the end of June, we discussed Crohn’s remission and the use of Azathioprine as a maintenance drug but you said you would not want to prescribe it because of the low platelets. Will the non-resolution of the platelets preclude the use of any other potential medications that might be needed if my Crohn’s starts to deteriorate? Is Azathioprine ruled out by low platelets regardless of the cause?”

Early the next morning I received a response from the haematologist :

“Having read this email – I think we do need to go ahead and finally do the bone marrow test to see if we can be  more definitive about the cause for your low platelet count as this is having an impact on your treatment options. We can discuss it when I see you on Wednesday.”

The Appointment

For haematology appointments it’s worth turning up half an hour early as they always take a blood sample and have the results available during your consultation. I booked in and then took a seat. Within 5 minutes I was called by the phlebotomist and had a blood sample taken. It was then back to the seating area, ready for a long wait. After another 10 minutes I heard my name being called. A doctor I hadn’t seen before introduced herself and apologised for keeping me waiting even though I was being seen 15 minutes early. My usual consultant was on holiday so no point in asking “for continuity” (3) and anyway I had already decided that I would be happy to be seen by whichever doctor I was allocated.

As we entered the consulting room I showed her my list (1)(6) and explained I had a few questions to ask. She had started reading my notes but they didn’t include a copy of the recent email correspondence so she was unaware that I was to have a bone marrow biopsy. Luckily I had a copy of the emails on my phone so she was able to read them for herself.

We went through the causes of low platelet counts – increased destruction ie. the body is producing sufficient platelets but something is destroying a number of them, possibly drug induced; or decreased production ie. the body isn’t producing the right number in the first place and could be down to bone marrow failure. The biopsy would help to focus the investigation. (I suppose it could be a combination of both but we’ll cross that bridge….).

We also discussed some other factors which I’m still struggling to understand. I have an enlarged spleen (splenomegaly) – what caused that? Enlarged spleens can hold increased numbers of platelets and therefore lower the number in circulation and the number that get counted. Then there’s the blood clot in my portal vein (PVT – Portal Vein Thrombosis). Did this cause the spleen to enlarge? The doctor remarked that blood clots in this location were common in Crohn’s patients and it was plausible that the clot could have been there since my emergency operation in 1979 as the liver specialist suggested. I asked why it hadn’t shown up on the various x-rays and scans that I had had over the years. She replied that unless the radiologist was specifically looking in that area it would be easy to overlook. Unfortunately the x-rays up to the year 2000 are no longer available. There is a CT scan from 2009…..but this is all rather academic.

By now the results from the blood test appeared on the system – platelets 60, the lowest ever, but white cell and red cell counts normal. This suggested a platelet specific problem, not a general blood disorder.

We went though my list :

1) What involved in a bone marrow biopsy? It’s carried out under local anaesthetic by introducing a needle into the hip bone (?) and taking a small sample of marrow and then using a slightly larger needle to take a small core. Will it hurt? You’ve got Crohn’s disease and had surgery so you’re used to pain. The most uncomfortable bit is injecting the local anaesthetic. Some patients don’t even feel the biopsy needles being introduced.

2) Do I need to take any special precautions if I have teeth extracted? Unless your platelets fall below 50 then extraction should be OK. You might want to have a clotting gel available to stop your gums from bleeding. If your dentist is worried he might want to refer you to the specialist Dental School at Guys.

3) How regular should I be having blood tests and are there any special things to test for? Six monthly at your outpatient appointments is fine. You could ask your GP for more frequent ones. The only special test would be for clotting.

4) Is there any possible link between low platelets and diet? (A bit of a long shot this one but I due to see the dietician in a couple of weeks time). No.

Back to reception to book the biopsy and the follow-up appointment. I was offered the biopsy for the next morning. Unfortunately I wasn’t going to be in London so declined. “We have a slot at 3.00pm next Wednesday, is that any good?”. Excellent and the follow-up appointment was set for the week before Christmas.

The next day I got a phone call from the doctor asking me to forward a copy of the email correspondence for inclusion on my file. I told her that the biopsy was planned for one week’s time and she sounded genuinely surprised it was so soon. I mentioned that the follow-up appointment wasn’t until December and wondered if it should be brought forward. She assured me that once the biopsy results were available she would be in contact with their findings. Roll on the biopsy.

Wednesday 2nd October – Bone Marrow Biopsy

The procedure was planned for 3:00pm. In the morning I had told various colleagues that I wouldn’t be around after lunch and explained why. Every single one of them uttered the same 3 words “that sounds painful”. After you’ve heard it for the umpteenth time a few nagging doubts set in but I remembered what the haematologist had said last week “You’ve got Crohn’s. You’ve had operations. You’ve dealt with pain! This will be nothing by comparison.”

Guy’s Hospital in the shadow of The Shard

I set off in good time, (if you’ve read any other posts you will know that I always do), and arrived at Guy’s twenty minutes early, checked in and waited to be called. A nurse came over and gave me an identification wristband as the procedure would be carried out in the Day Hospital section. She said that I shouldn’t have to wait too long.

It was around 3:30pm when the doctor appeared. Her first reaction was “have you come alone?” That sounded a bit alarming. I asked why I would need to be accompanied and she replied that most patients were nervous about the procedure and liked to have someone with them.

She showed me into a treatment room. I took my shoes off and ay on my right hand side on the bed. She explained what she was going to do, where the needles would be inserted and then did the usual risk assessment talk. There was not a lot that could go wrong as the needles go straight through the skin into the hip bone and nowhere near any vital organs. I signed the consent form and we were ready to start.

I asked how long it would take for the results to be available as my follow-up appointment was planned for mid-December. She replied that they should be available in 4 or 5 weeks and they would contact me if anything untoward showed up. I asked to be informed even if nothing showed up as I didn’t want to wait until the appointment to find out.

She asked me to pull my knees up to my chest and adopt a foetal position. She felt around to find the best location for the needle and then thoroughly cleansed the area. This was followed by a series of shallow injections of local anaesthetic and was the most painful part of the whole experience but really not too bad. Certainly nothing to get hung up about. Some deeper injections were made but by now the first set of injections was working so I felt very little. A few minutes later it was time for the first sample needle to be inserted.

The slides

The aim is to get a liquid sample (aspirate) that can then be spread onto microscope slides for an initial examination within the department. She was having problems getting a good sample that wasn’t contaminated with blood as it kept clotting (which goes against what you would expect from low platelets). Because I was tolerating the needle so well she took some more samples but explained that the as long as she could get a good core sample then the quality of the liquid samples wasn’t important.

Time for the coring needle, which is quite a bit larger than the previous one. If you’ve ever seen one of those food programmes about cheese no doubt there will have been a scene where the cheesemaker inserts a tool into the cheese and pulls out a nice sample. Same principle here!

It takes a fair amount of force to push the larger needle through the outer layer of the bone. I could certainly feel it as it went deeper in. It wasn’t so much pain as a dull ache that traveled into the leg. After a couple of minutes of pushing the needle into the right depth it was withdrawn and the sample released. She was very pleased with the resulting core and set about dressing the puncture wound.

Bone marrow core sample

I then had to lie on my back for 15 minutes whilst the blood clotted and sealed the wound. I was told that a nurse would come and tell me when I could go. After 20 minutes or so she came in and looked at the wound. It was fine so back on with my shoes and down to the station to catch the train home.

The procedure room

Throughout the procedure we talked about low platelet counts, possible causes, what the tests would show, the fact that my red and white cell counts were normal, my Crohn’s history, empowered patients etc. It was very informative and kept me at my ease.

If you have got to have this procedure done it really is fairly painless. Once the initial local anaesthetic has been injected it’s pretty much plain sailing.

24th October – “Please relax this weekend”

I had added a reminder into my calendar to email the consultant after 5 weeks and ask if there had been any news. I needn’t have bothered as they were already “on my case”.

On 24th October I received an email saying “your bone marrow is being discussed with the Histopathologist and Dr. xxxxx will write to you with the results. We will see you in clinic in December.” Straight onto Wikipedia and I now know that a Histopathologist is someone who carries out “microscopic examination of tissue in order to study the manifestations of disease”.

I replied by asking if, once the discussions had been concluded, they could email me with an indication of what they had found  I explained that I had rescheduled my appointment for the end of November so that it preceded my Gastro appointment in early December. Last Friday I received another email saying that it would be easier to discuss the findings in clinic. Whoa. Did that mean – nothing to worry about, it can wait; or it’s serious and we want to tell you face to face?

I’m pretty laid back about my health nowadays. I’ve had enough shocks along the way to just accept whatever will be will be but I was starting to get an uneasy feeling. There was no way I would relax over the weekend knowing that the results had been assessed but I was in the dark. Time for another email “…I wonder if you could just put my mind at rest that you haven’t found anything too serious otherwise I won’t be able to relax this weekend!”

Within a few minutes this came back :

“Please relax this weekend. 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…….I look forward to seeing you on 20th November and we can discuss this in person and in more details then. In the meantime – I hope this reassures you.”

I thanked the doctor for her prompt response. I can relax until I see her on 20th November, apart from having to go to work, commuting to London and worrying what effect the fireworks will have on our dog and ponies. (Cut to gratuitous picture of dog and ponies for light relief)

Next stop – 12th November – upper GI endoscopy to see if my esophageal varices have regrown and to band them if necessary. Obviously I’m hoping that they find nothing as you can only eat sloppy food for four days after any banding otherwise the food might dislodge them. For what happened please see the post entitled “Upper GI Endoscopy”.

Haematology – 20th November 2013  Today’s appointment was to go through my bone marrow biopsy results. Even though I had already had the email a couple of weeks back telling me that there was “nothing sinister to report” but it was always at the back of my mind that there might be something significant that needs discussing face-to-face.

I got to the clinic early to allow time for the obligatory blood test. With that over I settled down to wait for one of the consultants. After 15 minutes my usual doctor collected me and we went into a consulting room. She started our conversation with “Yours is not a simple case…..”.

She had printed out two biopsy reports – one for the recent bone marrow procedure and the other for last year’s liver biopsy (which I had not seen before – more of that later).

The bone marrow results had been discussed at the MDM (multi-disciplinary meeting) 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 net and then probably have been worried/distracted by the potential links with leukemia. That’s why the report hadn’t been emailed to me.

(This is a quote about MDS from patient.co.uk – “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 made the right decision to want to discuss it in person.)

She went on to say that she was not completely happy with the MDS conclusion because a bone marrow biopsy looks at two substances – the marrow itself and the aspirate, that’s the bone marrow liquid. When I had the original procedure the doctor said that she was not getting good aspirate slides as the blood in the samples kept clotting. After several attempts, but with little success, she decided to concentrate on taking a good bone marrow core.

“It’s like having a three piece jigsaw from which two pieces were missing.” So 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 I feel about this?” I replied I really wasn’t fussed, the most painful bit was the initial injection of local anaesthetic. If it would help narrow down the diagnosis then the sooner the better. She explained that this time they would use Heparin with the sample needle as this 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 was unaware that there is a potential link between Crohn’s and bone marrow. (I’ll do some further reading up on that one)

Using my blood results I’ve plotted my platelet count vs. Azathioprine dose (click to enlarge)

They 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 require 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 (9th December) and 3 month follow-up appointment.

Included with the Haematology Report was one from my Liver Biopsy – if I thought blood was complicated then reading this report is mind boggling. I haven’t even tried translating it into easy-to-understand terms. Here’s a sample :

“Features of cholangiopathy, with slight cholangiocyte disarray, occasional juxtaportal hepatocytes containing copper-binding protein deposits, and scattered ceroid-laden macrophages in portal tracts. Patchy mild portal-tract fibrosis with perisinusoidal extension and early spurring. Macrovesicular steatosis of hepatocytes (5% of parenchyma). Slight centrilobular sinusoidal ectasia noted. Crohn’s disease with splenic vein block (clinical diagnosis), see comment. An early stage of primary sclerosing cholangitis is a possibility. Correlation with imaging-study findings appears in order. I can not suggest an aetiology for the slight sinusoidal ectasia observed.” 

Next Appointment – 2nd December to see my gastro-enterologist. Will be interesting how all these strands come together.  I’ll also get the result of the calprotectin test that was done recently. It will be a good pointer as to whether my Crohn’s is active/inactive and consequently what the future treatment plan is likely to involve. If it is still in remission then is it better to continue without any medication for as long as possible or would it be better to start taking precautionary doses? I get the feeling that the answer won’t be a simple one.

If you’ve looked at some of my earlier posts you may have read about the problem I have had with not getting  follow-up letters out of Haematology in a timely manner. This was brought home to me when I saw my gastro-enterologist last Monday (2nd December). He was unaware that I had seen the haematologist to discuss the results of original biopsy; that there were implications for restarting Azathioprine; that a second procedure had been arranged and all because there was no letter detailing all this on my file. (He very helpfully went on to say that a bone marrow biopsy was the one test he really wouldn’t want to go through himself!).

9th December – Haematology Day Unit – Guy’s Hospital

Biopsy II Day. A beautiful, sunny winter’s day. Took the District Line down to Monument and then a stroll over London Bridge, underneath The Shard and on to Guy’s Hospital.

The Thames from London Bridge

 

The Shard appears to have grown arms

I arrived in plenty of time, was wristbanded and waited for a doctor. She appeared a short while later and I was taken to a cubicle in the day ward. She went through the usual risk review and got me to sign the consent form.

Then, for the second time, the value of follow-up letters became apparent. The doctor had referred to my notes and found the latest letter on file, dated September. She was unaware of what had happened in the interim, that this was to be a second sample attempt but with no need for a marrow core this time. It’s a good thing that I had taken this all in, together with the plan to use Heparin to stop the blood from clotting otherwise it would have been back to square one and a third biopsy. (Whilst this blog sometimes goes into too much detail it is proving useful when follow-up letters aren’t forthcoming and I want to recall what we said at an appointment)

She went off to find the Heparin. When she returned she laid out the various bits of equipment – swabs, needles, instruments of torture, local anaesthetic etc. She got me to arrange my clothes so she could access my hipbone and to ensure any leakage missed them. I then rolled onto my left hand side and draw my knees up onto my chest.

Instruments of torture (luckily the largest one wasn’t needed)

Last time it was the local anaesthetic injections that stung the most but this time they were outdone by the sample needle. I think a couple more minutes to allow the anaesthetic to work and it would have been fine. She looked at the first slides but they weren’t quite as she wanted, probably due to the Heparin. She asked if it was OK to go back in with another needle to get a second sample. This time I felt nothing apart from a liquid trickling down my back. It could only be blood. Slightly unnerving. Clearly the Heparin had worked. She was now happy with the slides and showed me what they were looking for. To prove how truly sad I am I asked her if I could take a picture of a “correct” slide.

This slide was the one chosen for further examination

She cleaned up the “leakage” and put a dressing over the puncture. It was then a 15 minute wait, lying on my back, to ensure everything had started to seal itself. She warned me that it was likely to need a new dressing before I left hospital due to the action of the Heparin. After 15 minutes a nurse came and changed the dressing and I was allowed to go back to work.

Now I have to wait for the results. Can’t believe it – I forgot to ask how long that process would take. Must also chase up the follow-up letter but quite frankly I’ve had enough of appointments and procedures for this year. I just want to chill out and try and forget about medical matters. The follow-up appointment is set for 19th February.

Wednesday 19th February – Haematology II – Guy’s Hospital

The first appointment of the year and really unprepared for it. It’s only two months since the last one but I’ve already got out of the habit. Traveling up to the London on the train in the morning I realised I hadn’t even got a list of questions to ask. When I got to my office I printed off the account of my last trip to Haematology, just to jog my memory (see post – “Bone Marrow Biopsies, Follow-up and Results…well sort of”). I then re-read the post “Managing Consultants and Appointments” to make sure I put into practise what I preach. By the time I set off for Guy’s Hospital I had managed to write down 7 things I needed to ask or mention on a good, old fashioned Post-It note.

List of questions for Haematology

Appointment was for 10:00am so arrived 15 minutes early for the obligatory blood test. The phlebotomist asked me if I knew why she was also taking a “histological” sample, but I didn’t.

Back to the waiting area and at 10:00am my usual doctor appeared, greeted me warmly and we set off for a consulting room. She introduced me to an American medical student, who was over in the UK to see how things are done in the NHS, and checked that I was OK with someone else present during the consultation.

She explained that after the last bone marrow biopsy one of the samples, which should have gone for histological testing, had either been mislaid or mislabelled so did not make it to the histologist. This is why she had rung me a few weeks back to explain the situation. She had however looked at the other slides from the second biopsy and these were fine. She had discussed the missing sample with the chief histologist and he suggested doing a particular 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 me to put me through that again. I’m really not that fussed.

…and so to the list :

1) Long term prognosis – will not affect the other  issues I have – Crohn’s, potential PSC, PVT. Must avoid use of Azathioprine in the future. Today’s platelet count = 74, an increase of 18, but don’t get hung up on the numbers as I am currently asymptomatic ie. I don’t bleed profusely if I cut myself.

2) Cause of low platelets – no signs of any marrow abnormalities which could have pointed to a more sinister conclusion ie. leukaemia therefore cause is drug induced – long term use of Azathioprine.

3), 4) and 6) Treatment – none required but look out for any signs of starting to bleed more easily. Six monthly blood tests and outpatient appointments. A platelet count of 50 is the threshold for having minor surgery or teeth extraction so no need for special measures at present.

5) Medical Synopsis – some inaccuracies had crept into the synopsis at the top of the last follow-up letter. I wasn’t sure if they were significant but we went through them one-by-one and put them right. (I had already emailed my gastro consultant a few weeks back with the correct information)

7) Follow-up Letters – this was an area where we had had issues in the past. I requested that follow-up letters were sent out as soon as possible after an appointment as the last time I saw my gastro consultant he was unaware of my bone marrow biopsy etc. She promised to improve the timing in future and would write to me as soon as the histological results were back.

I mentioned that as part of the NHS Change Day (3rd March 2014) I had pledged to give feedback to my consultants on the service they provide (whether they wanted it or not!). This was my first chance to put the pledge into action. She thanked me for my feedback.

10:20am appointment completed and on way back to work

SUMMING UP

The low platelet issue had originally been “parked” but in September 2013 I felt that we really should investigate it further so we could decide if Azathioprine would still a viable drug for treating my Crohn’s and  to make sure there wasn’t a  more serious underlying problem. My gastro consultant supported this and the investigation started.

Two bone marrow biopsies later and we have the answer. The low platelets are not indicative of a bone marrow abnormality but are drug induced with the likely cause being to 8+ years of Azathioprine. It is a known side effect of this drug. Azathioprine is sometimes used to maintain Crohn’s remission but if I get to the point where I need to go back on medication it will not be considered as an option.

The low platelets can return to their parking bay.

…and the implications for other Azathioprine users? The above is just MY experience of taking that drug and as we all react differently to medications you should not assume you will end up in the same situation. Whilst I stopped taking it when we realised there was a potential problem it has not damaged my bone marrow sufficiently to need to take further action. The haematologist described it as like having a “four cylinder engine but only running on three”. Would I have agreed to starting Azathioprine back in 1998 if I knew then what I know now? Yes. For nearly ten years it kept surgery at bay so that when the knife became inevitable I was in a much better position both financially and mentally to cope.