Category Archives: haematology

The Importance of Follow-up Letters

Follow-up letters from appointments are an important part of your health records. They should contain what was discussed with your consultant, any conclusions arrived at or changes in medication etc. By default Guy’s and St.Thomas’ write to your GP after each appointment and copy in the patient under cover of a note that states “this is primarily a communication between medical professionals” (which I think is another way of saying “you probably won’t understand all the words we use”).

Now it has to be said that not all Departments stick to the “default” and I have had a couple of occasions (both with the same department) where the lack of letters caused issues. This is where my blog posts recording the latest appointment have proved more than just an exercise in self indulgence and why I read them prior to my next hospital visit.

The first time this happened was in March 2013 when I attended a regular appointment and was greeted by a doctor I hadn’t met before. We went into one of the side rooms where my notes were open on the desk. He introduced himself and said that he had been reading the notes to familiarise himself with my case. I had been hoping to see my usual consultant as I liked continuity and had issues with the lack of follow-up letters that I needed to raise with them. Unfortunately they were unavailable for that day’s clinic.

The new doctor said that, having read my notes, it was apparent that the condition I was suffering from was rare and started to discuss my low platelets. He noted that I had last been seen in October 2012. I stopped him in his tracks and said this was a clear reason why up-to-date notes and follow-up letters were so vital. There had been two further appointments since October and the platelet issue had been “parked”. A new, far more serious, condition had arisen – PVT (Portal Vein Thrombosis). This was now the priority.

I explained that this was an important appointment for me as I was expecting to run through my risk profile and at the end of it make the decision on whether to start blood thinners. My regular consultant had said they would discuss my case with th Department’s Warfarin expert, one of the professors.

At that point I started to think that this was all going to end up badly. I needed to kick start a reaction so I asked whether the professor was in the unit that day and what I needed to do to see her. Clearly this was never going to happen but it was worth a try! The doctor said that he would see if he could speak to my original consultant.

A few minutes later he returned with another consultant. I recognised her name as my clinic letters always stated that I was under her ultimate care. Putting two and two together she must have been the next one up the food chain from the doctor I usually saw. I went back over my expectations from this consultation. She explained that she worked closely with the “Warfarin Professor” and they jointly reviewed patients.

She ran through the risk factors and having looked at my notes and results, on balance, she would not recommend Warfarin yet. As far I was concerned it was the “right” answer. If there was a low risk of clotting then I was prepared to take that risk to avoid having starting yet another medication. Decision made, no Warfarin.

A month later I was still awaiting the missing follow-up letters. Time for some further action. I sent an email to the head of department (whose address I found on their web page). I apologised for contacting her directly but explained that raising the issue in clinic was having no effect. I added: “I thought it was therefore best to go straight to the top so that you can delegate any necessary actions…….” and briefly explained what had happened at my last appointment.
I hit the send button and got a very prompt response, 20 minutes later, apologising and saying it would be looked into.

The four missing letters arrived shortly afterwards, with an apology. I checked their contents against my blog and they were accurate records of the appointments.

From the above I’d like to pass on two thoughts : 1) that keeping your own record  is important and can prevent a waste of your time and a waste of NHS resources going over old issues that are already “parked”; 2) if you are having a problem with getting follow-up letters then go to the top and ask for their help. I have found those four little words “can you help me?” have opened up many situations whilst negotiating the pathway s through the NHS.

(I’ll leave the account of the second missing letter issue for another time. Suffice to say that I could have ended up having a third bone marrow biopsy! Not something I would recommend)

Haemophilia Clinic

I have found writing a short account of my outpatient appointments has been hugely beneficial as the doctor’s follow-up letters cannot cover everything we discuss and I will certainly have forgotten it by the next appointment. (I’ve also included some photographs from the walk I took through the City of London after the clinic)

Wednesday 7th February 2018 – Guy’s Haemophilia Clinic

A fairy early start to get to Guy’s Hospital by 9:35am for a visit to the Haemophilia Clinic, even though I’m not a haemophiliac. I had first been alerted to this appointment when I received a text message, before Christmas, followed a few days later by a confirmation letter. On arrival I had my blood pressure and pulse rate taken then settled down into a comfy chair, expecting a long wait. Guy’s have adopted the same large TV screens as St.Thomas’ for alerting the patient when its their turn to see a doctor. I watched for my name to appear then I heard it being called out.

I was greeted by a doctor I hadn’t met before. After the initial pleasantries she asked “Do you know why you are here?” Tempting as it was to reply “Do any of us know why we are here? Are we the creation of some omnipotent deity or the product of thousands of years of evolution?”, I opted for “No”. Although I tempered this with “…it’s probably to do with a bleeding management plan”. Correct, and brought about because of my low platelet count.

I don’t want to sound dextraphobic but when I saw that the doctor was left handed I knew it would be a good consultation. We went through my medical history. She was under the impression that I had undergone a major Crohn’s flare in 2012 so I was able to correct her and explain that in June 2012 my esophageal varices burst. She asked how I discovered the problem. I replied “Sitting surrounded by a pool of blood”.

I had previously been told that Crohn’s patients undergoing a flare are more susceptible to blood clots but not why. She explained that when undergoing a flare the blood becomes extra “sticky” to combat the inflammation. The portal vein carries blood from the gastrointestinal tract so is a common place for a clot to form. The body compensates for the blockage by growing new veins (varices) around the clot but a back-pressure can build up which in turn causes the spleen to enlarge and, in my case, varices to grow around the gallbladder. They would be an added complication should I need to have a cholecystectomy.

This enlarged spleen stores more platelets rather than release them into the bloodstream. Combine this with the damage to my bone marrow, probably due to Azathioprine, and it explains why blood tests show my platelets as below the optimum range. Many patients with low platelets do not notice they have a problem until the platelet counts falls to single figures. My count, between 60 and 80, is perfectly respectable for surgery or dental work so there would be no need for pre-surgery bleeding plan but post-surgery I would be prescribed a blood thinner for six weeks as this is the highest risk period for developing clots.

We then covered my decision not to take Warfarin which was reached by looking at the risk factors versus my wish not to take yet more medication. She thought I had made the right decision but noted that treatment has moved on and there are now medications that are much easier to take. Fine tuning dosages to achieve an acceptable INR was no longer an issue.

Up until now the concensus of opinion was that the clot in my portal vein resulted from peritonitis caused by a perforated bowel in 1979. I’ve always struggled with this explanation as a 30 year gap between cause and effect seems, to a non-medically trained brain, implausible. She thought it more feasible that it was caused by surgery in 2010. I accept that trying to get a definitive answer will not change anything but I would like to know, purely out of curiosity. I mentioned that whilst I would not wish to take up any NHS time on answering such a question I do happen to have a 2009 CT scan. I would need to find a “friendly” radiologist who would be prepared to have a look at the images and tell me if there was any evidence of a clot in the portal vein. Something to work on.

I then remembered to ask what the Upper GI doctor had meant by “if he can tolerate it” which was written on the prescription upping my Propranolol from 80mg/day to 120mg/day in an attempt to stop my spleen growing larger. What side effects should I be looking out for?  The answer – breathlessness and generally feeling unwell. So far I was coping OK.

She said she would like to see me again in 12 months rather than completely discharge me from the clinic. My next general haematology appointment was in March so she suggested it be put back 6 months. I thanked her for an enlightening consultation. We shook hands and I headed off for London Bridge..

The Long Walk

I had planned to take a brisk walk up to Finsbury Square for a coffee but it turned out to be anything but brisk. It took a lot longer than it should have done because I kept stopping to look at all the new buildings that have sprung up since I last went that way. I’m a sucker for glass facades.

Police sniffer dog patrolling around Guildhall
The wonder of computer designed structures
More architectural details
Salter’s Hall – one of the Great 12 Livery Companies
More steel and glass

After coffee I headed for Holborn and, again, made slow progress. On to Denmark Street to browse in the few, remaining guitar shops. then down to Trafalgar Square stopping briefly at The National Portrait Gallery to use their facilities.

Trafalgar Square – National Gallery

Total distance covered = 13.4km. I would have gone further but the cold was starting to get to me.

Next appointment – Gastroenterology at Guy’s on Monday 12th Feb

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