Category Archives: thrombocytopenia

The Difficult Patient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elective or Emergency?

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

Why?

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

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

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

Preparing to meet the surgeon for the first time

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

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

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

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

What Shall We Talk About?

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

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

Risks and Benefits of Surgery

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

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

Likelihood of liver damage?

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

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

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

My Preferred Way Forward

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

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

Anything Else?

Next upper GI endoscopy/variceal banding due December 2017

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

…..should be an interesting meeting

The Aza Conundrum

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”