Apart from the physical and psychological effects of Crohn’s Disease there’s one aspect that I don’t see mentioned that often – the huge amount of time that patients can spend attending appointments and undergoing tests or procedures. Just how disruptive this can be was brought home to me after my ileal re-section in October 2010.
To give you a flavour of the types of tests and procedures Crohn’s (and related conditions) can require I have pulled together all the different types I’ve been through over the years. Apologies if this rather labours the point. As with all things Crohn’s related these are my experiences, yours may be completely different.
BARIUM MEAL AND FOLLOW THROUGH
18th May 1999 – Mayday Hospital
I can still clearly remember this test at Mayday Hospital as if it was yesterday. As with many of the procedures there was the prep to take the day before which effectively emptied my digestive system. I arrived at hospital and changed into one of those backless gowns that are impossible to fasten properly without help. It was then back to the waiting area. Just putting on the gown already lifts the stress levels and sitting like that in a waiting area just makes it worse.
The first problem was swallowing the barium meal – a thick, off-putting, tasteless sludge. Having downed the final mouthful there was then a wait whilst it made it way slowly round my digestive system. I was taken to a bed and told to lay on my right hand side for 45 minutes as this would aid digestion. When the time was up I was shown into the x-ray room.
I lay face up on the x-ray table whilst the radiographer took a preliminary scan but was not happy with the result. He was having difficulty in getting the barium meal to move around my system due to a stricture. He produced a rubber beachball which he placed between the x-ray head and my abdomen. He then proceeded to bounce it up and down and it slowly did the trick. The x-rays showed that the terminal stricture was as bad as ever. My bowel was down to the size of my little finger. Unfortunately the x-rays taken at the time are no longer available.
As a result my consultant gave me the choice of starting Azathioprine or having surgery. I chose the drug route.
March 1978 – Mayday Hospital
I haven’t had one of these for a long, long time. I thought they had probably been phased out by the introduction of CT and MRI scans but I believe they are still used.
Of all the procedures I’ve been through I think this is the most undignified. Having taken the usual purging prep the previous day, arrived at the hospital and changed into a gown, I ended up on a bed with a tube stuck where the sun don’t shine and barium liquid being poured down it. Once I was “full” the instruction came “to try and to hold it all in” whilst the tube was removed and the x-rays taken. Just writing this I am clenching my buttocks as I remember that feeling of the tube being gently withdrawn and then it’s all down to muscle control.
Once the x-rays were done, there was the dash to the nearest bathroom to allow what went in to come out, rapidly. I think I’d sum up the whole experience as unpleasant and the most likely to end in a very messy situation involving embarrassment, mops, buckets and cleaners.
BONE MARROW BIOPSY
2nd October 2012 – Guy’s Hospital
The procedure was planned for the afternoon so I went into work as normal. That 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. The previous week I had asked the haematologist if it hurt to which she replied “you’ve got Crohn’s and had surgery. You’ve dealt with pain! This will be nothing by comparison”.
I checked in to the clinic and given an identification wristband as the procedure would be carried out in the Day Hospital section.
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. Whatever.
She showed me into a treatment room. I took my shoes off and then lay 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.
I pulled my knees up to my chest and adopted a foetal position. She felt around to find the best location for the needle and then 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 aim is to get a liquid sample 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 cheese-maker 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.
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.
CALPROTECTIN – I’ve kept this one in for completeness. The procedure is very simple – collect stool sample; send to path lab; wait to see if they have managed to lose the sample or come up with a lame excuse for not processing it. If they have then repeat procedure; if they haven’t then wait at least 10 days for result. Research has shown there is a good correlation between the calprotectin result and what would be seen by a colonoscopy. I am very definitely the exception to the rule.
See this post – http://www.wrestlingtheoctopus.com/fantastic-voyage/
Saturday 11th March 2017 – St.Thomas’ Hospital, Endoscopy Suite
This wasn’t going to be a “normal” colonoscopy but I knew what was involved and the lure of having a procedure within two weeks was enough to secure my agreement to what followed.
The preparation in the lead up to the scoping followed the usual pattern of fasting and drinking Citrafleet. The advice leaflet suggested taking the second dose on the morning of the procedure but if they thought I was going to make an hour’s journey on a train within a couple of hours of drinking the solution then they were wrong. I took the second dose late the previous night.
The day of the scoping arrived. By 10:30 I was wristbanded and cannulated. I went off to change into a pair of very stylish paper boxer shorts with a velcro flap up the back. (Of course I put them on the right way round first time!) Once I had donned hospital and dressing gowns it was into the male waiting area until they were ready for me.
Eventually the Gastro registrar appeared and went through the procedure. He explained that he would start off and then hand over to the lead consultant when we were joined by the audience (via a video link). We agreed I would have minimal sedation as I wanted to be able to watch the images and ask questions.
He lead me down to the procedure room where I was greeted by the nurses. Whilst I was being prepped we discussed the use of azathioprine and potential bone marrow suppression. We also touched on Crohn’s and the link to portal vein thrombosis. I hadn’t realised that patients with active disease are more prone to clots such as DVT. Everything was now ready. The lead consultant came in and introduced himself.
I was asked to adopt a fetal position and, with a liberal handful of KY jelly, the scope started it long journey northwards. The image appeared on a large screen above us. In the bottom left hand corner there was a feature I hadn’t seen before. The consultant referred to it as the “sat nav” and it showed the position of the endoscope in the colon.
It was not an easy journey as my sigmoid was tending to loop as the scope attempted to pass through. There was a lot of changing position – lying on my right side, left side or back – and lots of pressure put on my abdomen by one of the nurses pushing down, hard. It was also a long journey as the aim was to go a short way into the small intestine past the anastomosis (the rejoin after my temporary ileostomy).
In the room next door my regular consultant was acting as chaperone to the group of international gastroenterology students who had come to St.Thomas’ to see “how we do it” in the UK. The screen on the wall flickered into action and two way communication was established. He briefly outlined my Crohn’s history and I was able to fill in some of the details. He explained the MRI issue that needed resolving and called up a copy of the report from my electronic file.
With a lot of perseverance, and gas to inflate the gut, the scope had reached the rejoin. I wonder whether the distraction of the video link caused me to relax and let the scope pass more easily. From then on the consultant gave a running commentary on what appeared on the screen. It was fascinating and informative. There was a debate between the 3 gastros as to which Rutgeerts score they would give my anastomosis. Was it i0, i1 or i2? The conclusion – i0 – no signs of ulceration.
Next they went through the MRI report and the scope was moved to the locations identified to see if any strictures were present. None found. One of the consultants remarked – “Scope 1 – MRI Scan 0”.
One thing that was apparent throughout my gut was a slight reddening (erythema). The scope was zoomed in to examine it and to look for any tell tale signs of active Crohn’s but found nothing. The consultant decided to take a few biopsies. I had never seen this done on previous scopings so watched with a mixture of interest and cringing. What looked like a small crocodile clip appeared from the end of the scope and, under voice control, nipped into the wall of my gut. I waited for the pain but nothing, just a small trickle of blood. I suppose that is why you are given a mild sedative. He decided to take a deeper sample so the device went back into the same location and took a further bite.
By now the scope had been in for about 45 minutes and it was finally time for it to be withdrawn. Always a relief. But what about the raised calprotectin level? They would have to come up with a non-Crohn’s explanation for it. The lead consultant bade farewell and I was wheeled out to Recovery. Experience over. When else would you get a chance to listen in to 3 leading gastros discussing your case and with the evidence before your eyes?
Before leaving the unit I was given a copy of the Endoscopy Report, which I have reproduced below, and it included a possible explanation for the calprotectin result. We will have to wait for the biopsy results to be certain.
The only downside was the length of the procedure. Usually I suffer no side effects from a scoping but this time I ached a fair amount for the next 24 hours.
20th May 2009 – East Surrey Hospital
This CT scan took place before I started blogging in earnest so I don’t have a full account of what went on. It is, however, a very significant test in my history of Crohn’s and is the procedure that confirmed surgery was inevitable. I can remember I was desperate to have the scan as I knew things were going very wrong internally. Rather than just book an appointment I explained my predicament to the appointments clerk and said that I could be available at fairly short notice should a cancellation arise. It worked and I was seen within a few days.
I don’t remember much about the actual procedure apart from sitting in the waiting room having been told to arrive an hour early to drink some liquid. The liquid turned out to be water and I was presented with a litre jug and a glass. I wasn’t sure how I would get through it all so decided to set myself a target of downing a glass every so many minutes. It was a good plan until a very apologetic nurse appeared with a second litre jug and said I should have given you this one to drink as well. Daunting.
When I went for my next outpatient’s appointment in June the radiologist’s report was not available. The scan itself was on the system so my consultant opened up the file and we watched it on his computer screen. The first thing that struck me were the large areas of solid black that appeared. To my untrained eye they looked serious and I wondered if they represented growths in my abdomen. Luckily they were just air pockets which show up as black voids.
My consultant explained that the scan needed an expert to fathom out what was going on. He was not knowledgeable enough to be able to interpret what we were seeing. I was booked in to see him again in another two months time.
It wasn’t until that next appointment in early August that I was told the CT report was now available. The delay was because of the complicated picture with both ileal disease and the suspicion that I was fistulating from there into other parts of the small bowel, possibly the sigmoid. The suggestion was that I may have a localised perforation “with no definitive collection”. My consultant put it in layman’s terms – “It looks like you’ve got an octopus in there”, hence the name of this blog (and book).
12th November 2012 – St.Thomas’ Hospital
Fibroscan of the liver. This is the non-invasive alternative to a needle biopsy. To quote from the unit manufacturer’s literature – “a mechanical pulse is generated at the skin surface, which is propagated through the liver. The velocity of the wave is measured by ultrasound. The velocity is directly correlate to the stiffness of the liver, which in turn reflects the degree of fibrosis – the stiffer the liver, the greater the degree of fibrosis.”
For this procedure you lie on a bed with your right side exposed and right arm above your head. Some jelly is applied to the probe and then it is placed against your side and triggered to send a pulse. This is repeated 10 or so times.
The machine then aggregates the scores and gives you a value. My value came out as 7.2. The nurse said that up to 5 was normal and above 12 would cause concern therefore my value showed that there were some fibrosis.
Just like a colonoscopy but with a smaller, shorter endoscope and I don’t remember taking any prep.
Wednesday 12th December 2012 – St.Thomas’ Hospital
The day of the liver biopsy had finally arrived. I’d covered all the bases so it should all go smoothly. This is a standard procedure that is done every day but for some reason I’ve found the thought of it quite daunting. Not the actual procedure itself (although this is what Patient.co.uk says on the matter – “Although liver biopsy may be an essential part of patient management, it is an invasive procedure with a relatively high risk of complications“) but, in my case, the variables brought about by the low platelet issue.
Start time was set for 9:30 at St.Thomas’ and the letter said be there 30 minutes early to get prepped. I’m not allowed to drive for 48 hours after the procedure so organised a lift down to the station. I also needed to be escorted on the journey home so my long suffering wife accompanied me.
We arrived at St.Thomas’ well before 9:00 and made our way into the warren called Interventional Radiology. I booked in with one of the nurses and we were shown to a waiting room. The nurse came back with the consent form to start filling out and then disappeared. About ten minutes later I thought I heard my name mentioned together with “Where is he? They’ve been looking for him for 20 minutes”. A little bit disconcerting. We sat tight and the administrator appeared and said “Your platelets are very low and they are concerned about the procedure. You were expected in last night to get prepared. Did anyone call you? They’re going to try and ring you on your mobile”. I checked my mobile but hadn’t missed any calls.
At this point I could see the wheels coming off the wagon. Luckily I had brought with me a copy of the email trail which explained who I had spoken to and what I had done to make everything, supposedly, go smoothly. I explained all this to the administrator. She disappeared for a while and then returned to say that they were waiting for a call from one of the doctors to see how they wanted to proceed. By now we were approaching 9:30 so I could see my “slot” disappearing.
After a few more minutes the nurse re-appeared and put on my patient wristband. This was a good sign and then another nurse appeared with hospital gowns and slippers but told me not to put them on until the doctor had run through the consent form and I had signed it.
A few more minutes and the doctor appeared. Good news. The procedure was going ahead and because of my platelet count they were going to do a standard, “plug”, biopsy, not use the transjugular route. (The standard route takes the needle directly into the liver and, when withdrawn, a plugging agent is introduced to block the puncture)
She went through what they were going to do during the procedure and what the various risks were. The main ones being bleeding from the puncture wound, damage to the biliary ducts and not getting sufficient of a sample therefore needing a further procedure at a later date. I signed the form and then changed into the gowns. Being an upper body procedure you only have to strip to the waist.
I said goodbye to my wife and she set off to visit the National Gallery and go shopping in Oxford Street. By now it was one of those cold, crisp winter days that makes London look even better.
I went into the preparation area to have a cannula inserted. Straight into the vein in one go. At 10:10 I was taken down to the theatre and lay on my back on a trolley with my arms over my head. Two doctors introduced themselves and proceeded to scan my liver area with an ultrasound probe. They discussed the best entry point and route for the needle. Once they were happy with where it was going one doctor took over and it was time to get the area ready for introducing the biopsy needle. The area was cleaned down and a sterile sheet stuck in position with an opening at the puncture site. Ready to start.
First, local anesthetic was injected around the area. The biopsy needle was then slowly introduced through the skin, guided by the ultrasound scan. There was one point which sent a short, sharp pain through my lower abdomen and that’s when the needle passed through the outer membrane of the liver. I was expecting the needle to go straight in, take a sample, and then quickly withdrawn but the process actually takes a lot longer as it is slowly guided into position. Every so often I was getting another sharp pain in my shoulder. I’ve learned not to “be brave”, and keep quiet, as the pain may indicate a problem. I told the doctor what was happening and she adjusted the needle position accordingly. I don’t know exactly how long the whole thing took, probably 50 minutes all up. It was quite a relief to hear the words “All finished”.
I was told to roll onto my right side as this applies pressure to the wound and helps it seal. I was wheeled back into the Recovery Room and the nurse explained that I had to stay on my side for 2 hours. After that I would be able to lie on my back and eat and drink but would need to spend a further two hours in Recovery before I could go home. I was wired up to a blood pressure/heart rate monitor and every few minutes one of the nurses would check to make sure everything was OK. I rang my wife to tell her what time I could be collected and then settled down for the two hour wait before eating.
Once the two hours were up I was allowed to roll onto my back and sit up. I was presented with an NHS Snack Box – sandwiches, crisps, yogurt, fruit juice and a chocolate biscuit. Never seen one of those before. I had some questions, mainly to do with what to look out for that would indicate if something was going wrong. The nurse patiently explained the potential signs of trouble and answered my more general questions.
The next two hours passed fairly quickly and just before 15:00 the doctor, who had carried out the procedure, came to see me to make sure everything was OK and sign me off. My wife had turned up so it was a quick change out of the gowns and we set off for the station. By 16:30 we were home and I had another test under my belt to add to my growing list.
I’m full of admiration for Interventional Radiology at St.Thomas’. Apart from the small hiccup at the start (which was nothing to do with them) everything ran very smoothly. The nurses were fantastic. Nothing was too much trouble. They kept me informed at every stage along the way and answered all my questions with patience and good humour. 10 out of 10. My last task will be to ring them in the morning to let them know if I’m OK.
I never got to the bottom of “we were expecting him in last night”. Will ask my lead consultant when I see him for the final planned test for 2012 – a colonoscopy next Thursday. An 8:30 start for that one but hopefully don’t need to be accompanied.
Monday 30th April 2012 – St.Thomas’ Hospital
I hadn’t had an MRI scan before so wasn’t sure what to expect. The main thing I’d been told was that some patients found the whole process claustrophobic. Because the scan was concentrating on the digestive system I wasn’t allowed to eat for the 8 hours prior to the test and was asked to arrive 1 hour early to drink a “special fluid”. This fluid looked very much like wallpaper paste but was lemon flavoured. There was a litre to drink and as I got closer to the bottom of the jug the consistency felt like wallpaper paste. Next time I have to drink MRI prep I’ll make sure I keep stirring it throughout. (….except the next time I had an MRI they had changed the prep solution to a disgusting tasting clear liquid called Mannitol)
When it had had time to move into my system I was taken into the scanner room. You’re confronted with a large, ring doughnut shaped bit of kit with a trolley that slides in and out. I was asked to lie face down on the trolley with my arms above my head. Not the most comfortable position when you’ve just drunk a litre of liquid. The radiographer explains what to expect and tells you that at various points within the test process you will be asked to hold your breath. Didn’t sound like a problem but you have to exhale first and that makes it a lot more difficult. You are given a set of headphones to wear as the machine is “quite noisy”. At least I didn’t get claustrophobia as I went into the tunnel feet first.
She wasn’t kidding about noisy. The best way I can describe it is being caught in the middle of a game of space invaders. The machine makes some very loud sounds and then, towards the end of the first test session, the table you are lying on starts to vibrate. A very strange feeling. The contrast dye is then introduced via a cannula and the whole test sequence repeated.
When the tests were completed and I was off of the table and another nurse asked me how I was getting home. I said by public transport. He replied that the litre of liquid that I had just drunk was specially formulated not to be absorbed by the body and that I might want to wait around a bit before catching a train. I then realised the significance of his comment but not being one to shy away a challenge, decided to jump on the train and see what happened.
I’m pleased to say that nothing happened, not even a hint of having to rush off to the loo. In fact the effect of the prep liquid was very short lived.
The results have to be interpreted by an MRI radiologist so there’s a three week wait before you get them.
29th July 2014 – St.Thomas’ Hospital
A simple procedure for measuring bile acid malabsorption. It involved a trip to St.Thomas’ Nuclear Medecine Dept. to swallow a radioactive pill and then return three hours later for scans – 5mins lying on back and then repeat lying on front. Then a further visit, one week later, for follow-up scans. The system then compares the two and works out how much of the radio active tracer has remained in the system and from that the bile acid absorption.
UPPER GI ENDOSCOPY AND VARICEAL BANDING
3rd September 2012 – St.Thomas’ Hospital
Off to St.Thomas’ Hospital, this time for an endoscopy……at least that’s what I thought. Of all the tests I’ve had I find endoscopies the worst to deal with and would always choose to be sedated. The implication of sedation is not being able to drive for 24 hours afterwards and I really needed the car the next day so I took the decision before I went in that I would only have the throat numbing spray and nothing else.
I had assumed that the doctor would just be having a look down my upper GI tract to see what state my varices were in. Wrong! She explained that the intention was to have a look down there and then, if necessary, treat the varices by banding, and for this I would need to be sedated. I would also need to have the whole procedure repeated in another three weeks and then again in a further three weeks.
She went through the risks associated with the procedure and got me to sign the consent form. I then had a cannula inserted in the back of my hand and I was ready for the procedure. After a few minutes I was wheeled into the testing room, connected to a blood pressure monitor and an oxygen supply. Then it was the xylocaine (burnt banana flavoured) spray that numbs the back of your throat, and finally a sort of gag is placed between you teeth and this helps to guide the endoscope. It’s the gag that I really don’t like so I was pleased that the doctor injected the sedative straight away with the words “you’re going to feel a little drowsy”.
Next thing I knew I was lying in Recovery. When I had woken up sufficiently I was given a copy of the endoscopy report that would be sent to my GP. The doctor had found three large varices with high risk stigmata and had applied 6 bands to them. The nurse told me that I must only have liquids for the next 24 hours and then three days of “sloppy” food. Now maybe it’s a man thing, but the sandwiches I had brought with me looked very appetising, so I waited a while and then tucked in, ignoring the nurse’s advice. Maybe stupidity is a better description because it did hurt swallowing and I knew not to do it again.
When we got back from London I did the second stupid thing – got in the car and drove home from the station. It was only afterwards that I read the leaflet I had been given at the hospital that pointed out that my insurance would be invalid during the 24 hours following sedation. I wouldn’t do that again either.
That evening I was in quite a lot of discomfort and took a couple of doses of Paracetamol. It was certainly a lot more painful than before but I noticed that the report for this session actually says “May experience some mild chest discomfort” so I’ll grin and bear it.
When I wrote up yesterday’s events for my blog I found that each time I thought about the burnt banana spray and the mouth gag I’m getting a slightly sick feeling in my stomach and at the back of my throat. I needed to address the issues there and then that I would be over it in time for the next banding. I surprise myself how laid back I am about hospitals, procedures and appointments so I don’t want to spoil that for the next one.