Pendulum

When I was younger, so much younger than today I never….

….wanted to go anywhere near a hospital. It was my biggest fear. Some of my schoolmates had already been incarcerated to have tonsils or an appendix removed. I don’t know what scared me specifically. Was it the thought of surgery? Was it an enforced stay away from the comforts of home and family? Was it thoughts of my own mortality? My fears turned into reality, in my early twenties, when I found myself in an ambulance, sirens blaring, heading for Croydon General Hospital with suspected appendicitis.

As it turned out it was more sinister than that – a perforated bowel that had leaked into my abdominal cavity and peritonitis had set in. (More of this later) When I left hospital after 3 weeks, most of which were spent on a “liquids only” regime, I had not suffered any particularly traumatic experiences but it had not lessened my fears.

I had been told that this first Crohn’s surgery was unlikely to be the last. In the ensuing years I still considered the knife to be the “last resort”(and, to be fair, so did my consultants). It was the “backstop” (to use a popular word) once all viable medication had been exhausted. In 2010 I was faced with surgery again having tried all the possible drug treatments. Thirty years between operations? Not bad. Three times longer than anticipated. Following the successful removal of a terminal ileum stricture, temporary ileostomy and subsequent reversal, I revisited my thoughts. If I had chosen elective surgery years earlier would my QOL have been better, sooner? The pendulum had now swung the other way and I started to advocate that surgery should not be considered a “last resort” or an indication that all other treatment had failed. It should be seen as an alternative to drug based treatment. It’s an area which various learned bodies are researching.

Then in January 2017 I turned yellow (jaundice). I was sent to see an upper GI surgeon (at my local hospital) who explained that the solution would be to remove my gallbladder. A relatively simple procedure, carried out laparoscopically. When he examined me he happened to notice the large, laparotomy scar stretching up my midline. He asked me to go through my medical history. At the end of my story, which included Crohn’s, portal vein thrombosis (probably due to the peritonitis), enlarged spleen and varices, he concluded I should be referred to a specialist liver unit as the operation would require specialist facilities.

A few weeks later I went to see another upper GI surgeon, this time at Kings. His registrar had started to go through the standard, pre-surgery checklist when I produced a drawing showing the route that my health had taken so far. She metaphorically gulped and went off to find the lead surgeon. He expressed his concern about carrying out surgery and after a lengthy discussion we concluded it would be best to leave well alone and only operate if it became absolutely necessary.

At my request I saw him again a couple of weeks ago as I had noticed a pain in my right hand side and wondered if it was a portent for needing his expertise with a scalpel. He prodded and poked the offending spot and announced that I had a post-operative hernia at the site of my former stoma. Again this would usually be a simple day operation but given my history it was another one to add to the “do nothing unless absolutely necessary” list. It dawned on me that the pendulum had now swung back to its original position. Due to circumstances, in my case, surgery really should be considered as a last resort.

In the meantime the long running “why is my calprotectin so high” question had been resolved. A capsule endoscopy in November 2018 showed that inflammation in my small bowel has returned. I have a meeting with my gastroenterologist next Monday to discuss starting Vedolizumab. I was minded to suggest holding off for the time being but that may not be a sensible position to take as I really do need to avoid surgery for as long as possible. Should be an interesting discussion.

Medical Record

Temporary tattoo on forearm. QR code links to medical record summary (it really does!)

This image gained some interest when I posted it on Twitter so I thought I would explain it’s genesis. From the outset I wish to make it clear that it is my solution to my specific needs. I’m not proposing it as a universal solution for quick access to medical information, more a stimulus for further thinking and discussion. (I’m also not claiming this as an original idea – there is at least one patient in USA who did it first)

The Trigger

In February 2017 I ended up in our local A&E (ER) Department as I had turned yellow. The first person I saw was a triage nurse who asked lots of questions about health conditions, history  and medication.

Next I saw an A&E Registrar. He asked the same questions but what would he have concluded if I hadn’t been able to fill in the details? He would have been confronted with a patient with a large scar up the midline, the hint of a stoma location and an appendectomy incision. He wouldn’t have known why the large scar was there and would have assumed my appendix had been taken out. He would be unaware that : I have Crohn’s disease; the attempt to remove my appendix had been aborted; I have Portal Vein Thrombosis resulting in additional veins growing in my esophagus (varices) and around by gallbladder; that my spleen is enlarged; or that the low platelet count is now normal for me. Valuable time could have been lost trying to investigate the problems that were already known about and being treated.

Do It Yourself

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

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

Attempt 1

First attempt – using a USB bracelet. First task – decide upon data and format. I settled on two top level documents – i) a simple, overall summary plus ii) a detailed table that recorded each appointment or procedure. These documents were stored as pdf files and linked to various back-up documents such as laboratory or histological reports.

USB Bracelet

There were two problems :

The format of the data was such that it would still require a fair amount of time to wade through and understand the aetiology of ,and relationships between, the various LTCs. This was solvable but the second issue would be insurmountable.

In order to protect the system from viruses it is unlikely any NHS computer would allow the reading of an external USB stick. Time for a rethink.

Back to the Drawing Board

A couple of years ago I drew  a diagram to try and understand the aetiology/relationships that I mentioned above. I used the metaphor of a jigsaw as that is how my health appears to me. The penny then dropped that it would be a good way of showing a new doctor or surgeon the complexity of my case on just a single page. This illustration shows an early version of the drawing.

Early version of “jigsaw” diagram

…and then someone set me the challenge of making an interactive version that would open up the relevant documents or test results when you click on an element of the diagram. This would make the ideal interface for my medical record.

Basis of interactive medical record jigsaw

To get over the USB security problem I settled on holding the data on a server and then accessing it via a QR code. Initially I thought of using a dog tag style SOS pendant with the code engraved on it but I have yet to find a company that can do this as a one-off at a reasonable price. I could use a conventional SOS bracelet with a printed QR code inside but why not try a tattoo?

I didn’t want a permanent tattoo as it would not allow for any future changes. I opted to try making a temporary one using those kits that are readily available online. After a couple of false starts, mainly due to not reading the instructions carefully (it’s a man thing), I had a readable QR code tattoo. Where to stick it? The ideal position would be somewhere that is not generally visible but would be seen by an HCP. I chose the inside of my forearm, just above the wrist. Anyone looking to insert a cannula would be bound to see this and hopefully use a phone or tablet to scan the code.

(I’m counting on the HCP having the curiosity to try the link and once  opened realise the importance of the information available. You could call this a “leap of faith”)

Future Developments

Life would be so much easier if the NHS had a universally accessible records system that held all our medical details, linked to our unique NHS patient number (only needs a simple, unchanging tattoo). I can’t see that happening in my lifetime given the success of previous attempts.

Clearly I have no issues about the confidentiality of my medical data or I wouldn’t be writing/publishing this post. I know that many patients do and this needs to be taken into account. I am willing to trade confidentiality for the speed at which my medical record could be read should I be involved in an emergency.

Answers

Why Does It Hurt?

View from the South Bank looking towards Blackfriars and St.Paul’s

Meet The Surgeon – Friday 8th March 2019 – a visit to St.Thomas’ to see the upper GI surgeon. A surprisingly lovely day and a chance to do some serious walking  along the South Bank of the River Thames.

Last time I saw him we discussed removing my gallbladder and had agreed to put it on hold until absolutely necessary. I had asked for this new appointment to discuss the pain I’ve been experiencing in my right hand side. I wondered if it was connected to my gallbladder (or scar tissue; or Crohns inflammation; or something else). He had a good prod around and was able to pinpoint the exact centre of the ache. (I knew he had found it as when he applied a fair degree of pressure, it hurt)

You have a small hernia. Usually we would offer you a short operation to repair it but given your history I doubt whether we should consider it“. The history he was referring to was the growth of new blood vessels in my abdomen due to PVT (Portal Vein Thrombosis). The vessels grew to relieve the pressure caused by the blocked portal vein.

I could now understand and visualise the pain. So much easier to deal with. Should I change my lifestyle? “No, carry on as before but if it gets worse then we will have to revisit the situation. You’ve got our contact number”. Should I consider wearing a support belt (as I had done when I had a stoma? “If you feel it helps“.

One Day My Prints Will Come

I mentioned that I had not yet seen the capsule endoscopy report from last November. He called it up on screen. No wonder they were having difficulties printing it. It comprised page after page of stills from the 12 hr video. There was however a summary page and I was surprised to find that it reported active inflammation in the proximal (top end of the) small bowel and a little further down as well. The far end (site of my anastomosis) was clear.

On the train home from London I thought more about why I was surprised and concluded that I really shouldn’t be.  Colonoscopies always showed no inflammation; upper GI endoscopies showed the same.  It was only the elevated calprotectin level that suggested anything was wrong. If that level wasn’t a false positive then the problem had to be somewhere between the duodenum and the terminal ileum. The last small bowel MRI scan had mentioned the possibility of inflammation. Despite this, physically, I felt nothing and still don’t. My digestive system is working as it should.

The Bleeding Clinic – Wednesday 13th March 2019 – off to Guy’s to see the haematologist in the Haemophilia Clinic……but my questions were all to do with general haematology.

My Hb has been consistently low for a while and I’ve been taking Ferrous Fumarate for over 5 years. My GP had then upped my dose to two tablets/day. I thought this was considered to be a short term measure. Would an iron infusion be more effective? The haematologist looked at my last blood test results. He agreed that the Hb was low and so were my white blood cells. Another bone marrow biopsy would be worthwhile to check for any changes since 2013.

I mentioned that there was a proposal that I should start Vedolizumab. Did my pre-existing conditions of thrombocytopenia (low platelets) and PVT (Portal Vein Thrombosis) need be considered? He consulted the online medication “bible” and said that Vedo was gut specific and should not interact with the other conditions.

He would book another appointment with the general Haematology clinic but in the meantime he would get me to provide blood and urine samples. I explained that the IBD Dept. required, and had already requested, specific blood tests. Would it be possible to get these done at the same time? Yes it would and so it was off to see the phlebotomist who removed nine full phials of blood (my previous record being seven).

…then off to visit the new public roof garden before getting lunch

View towards Canary Wharf from the Roof Garden at 120 Fenchurch Street

Next steps – off to see my gastroenterologist on 15th April

Call My Bluff

It started with a routine calprotectin test in November 2015. The result came back at just over 100, which equates to “mildly elevated”. Subsequent tests continued the upward trend. A graph (I do love a good graph) is the best way to show the issue.
Calprotectin Test Values

To try and explain this ever rising trend I underwent a number of MRIs and colonoscopies but nothing untoward was seen and my gastros were stumped. Life continued as usual and my remission appeared to be continuing despite the confusing calpro figures. Could there have been something causing a false positive reading? I set about trying to find a plausible answer (that didn’t involve inflammation) but without success. In the meantime I was wondering why my Hb level was on the low side. Cue another graph…

Hb Values

It wasn’t until late 2018 that I went to see my gastro again, ostensibly to discuss the Hb level and a recent bout of “bathroom dashes”. Was it time to re-investigate the calprotectin issue. There was one section of my gut that hadn’t been seen by camera, namely the small bowel between duodenum and the anastomosis site (where my terminal ileum had been). I was booked in for a capsule endoscopy on 18th November. The full description of the procedure and the wait for the results can be found here (opens in a new window) – https://www.wrestlingtheoctopus.com/fantastic-voyage/ .

When the report was finally available my consultant emailed me to say that “there is some inflammation in the small bowel – it’s not terrible but it must be the source of the calprotectin. I  think it is probably enough to warrant treatment which we should discuss. Shall I arrange an appointment?” Yes, that would be a good idea. The date has come through for mid-April. A few more weeks wait before finding out the way ahead….

Then, last Thursday, I was rather surprised to get a phonecall from one of the IBD nurses. She told me that it had been decided, at the weekly virtual clinic (which I think must be like an MDT), to start me on Vedolizumab and they needed to book me in for a blood test and chest x-ray prior to my first infusion. I explained that this would be a major decision, as I had been Crohn’s drugs free for several years. My preferred option was to stay that way. I would want to discuss any new drug/treatment, at the forthcoming gastro appointment, prior to starting. (I have subsequently had an email from my consultant agreeing with this course of action. It appears that the IBD nurses had been very efficient in trying to arrange approval for the drug prior to the appointment)

Bluff

I’m now in a position that many other patients are confronted with – the end of remission. I’ve written many times about maintaining a laid back, positive attitude. Now my bluff is being called and I need to prove to myself that I can continue being calm and unstressed about my health.  So far so good. If my quality of life was being seriously compromised and I was unable to function properly then the decision to restart medication would be a simple one…..but it isn’t apart from…..

….an ache in my right hand side (URQ). It’s more annoying than being anywhere near painkiller territory. What could be causing it? As with most things #IBD related there is always a high degree of uncertainty. I consider this to be one of the major psychological burdens we bear.

I’m currently testing an IBD Self Help programme. It is broken down into modules which are completed over a number of weeks. I haven’t reached the “Pain” section yet so I’ve been relying on the old technique of visulaising the pain in an attempt to lessen its impact. That’s easier to do if you know there is only one cause but in my case it could be : the recurrence of the old ache around my anastomosis due to adhesions/scar tissue; gallstones; getting the balance of Loperamide/Colesevelam wrong; or the new kid on the block – inflammation. (“New” may be an incorrect description given that the first high calprotectin values showed up in May 2016).

Jump

You might think that I would jump at the chance of starting treatment but I’m not so sure. If inflammation did restart in 2016 then I have thrived so far without medication, do I really need to start now? I don’t want to be dogmatic and take a “I’ve been taking no drugs so I’m not going to start now” stance without good reason. A fellow Crohn’s patient asked what made me hesitant? I suppose the answer is “side effects”. I have not needed to educate myself on the progress of the MABs/biosimilars and their potential downsides. I have a lot of catching up to do and need to understand how the benefits would outweigh the risks.

I have however had experience of drugs damaging other systems or not working. I took Azathioprine for 9 years, with no apparent side effects, then my platelet count suddenly plunged. The concensus was that the Aza had attacked and permanently damaged my bone marrow which in turn reduced its ability to produce platelets. No more Azathioprine. I then tried Infliximab but after 3 doses my symptoms showed no improvement and I went under the surgeon’s knife (2010).

Platelet Count

Before the mid-April appointment I need to research Vedolizumab; ask other Crohn’s patients for their experiences and come up with a list of questions for my gastro. I’ve made a start……

Questions, questions….

I would usually leave my list until a couple of days beforehand. Given that this will be a major decision point in my Crohn’s experience I thought it best to start writing now.

  • What exactly did the capsule endoscopy show in the way of severity of inflammation and locations? Was it confined to the small bowel?
  • What was the gist of the discussion that resulted in proposing Vedo?
  • My QOL is good apart from an ache on my right side
  • Looking at the calprotectin levels it suggests that inflammation started somewhere between November 2015 to June 2016 but was not apparent on other tests
  • It has been 6 months between having the capsule endoscopy mid-November and the appointment. That suggests it does not need immediate treatment.
  • What if I decide not to go back onto Crohn’s medication at present?
  • How will Vedo help me now? …and in the long term?
  • Are there any side effects I need to know about? Are any of these relevant to my other conditions?
  • Ongoing monitoring regime? Frequency?
  • How good a measure would calprotectin be for small bowel Crohn’s?
  • Does the efficacy of Vedo differ as one gets older? Do the side effects change?
  • Is there the opportunity to have infusions at a local hospital?
  • Was there anything else of note from the capsule endoscopy? Could anything account for my low Hb?
  • What can we do about Hb level and long term use of Ferrous Fumarate? Would an iron infusion be the answer?

(If I have missed something obvious or you have beem in a similar situation then please leave a comment or respond on Twitter @crohnoid – Thanks)

A Patient’s Dilemma(s)

When 10th October 2018 arrived I had reached the 8th anniversary of my ileostomy. When I left hospital I had learnt two things about potential future surgery – the average time between operations for Crohn’s patients is 10 years; recovery time is improved by the fitness and weight of the patient but increases with age. Based on these two principles I set myself  the target of boosting my exercise and reducing my weight to around 80kg so that should I need to go under the knife again then I was in the best possible state for a speedy recovery.

Having taken the decision to retire early the exercise is mainly physical work around the garden, mucking out stables and taking long walks photographing London (when the opportunity arises). I’ve been achieving my targets and feeling “very well”. There have been a few “blips” along the way but these would come under the heading of EIMs (Extra Intestinal Manifestations – see previous posts). I’ll stick with “very well” from a Crohn’s point of view.

…and then a few weeks ago the unplanned visits to the bathroom started again. They had been happening sporadically over the 8 years, lasting a day or so on each occasion. so at first I wasn’t concerned about the latest occurrence but when it  reached the third day, without any improvement, it was time to take action. I emailed my gastro consultant to ask his advice. “Ask your GP surgery if they can carry out stool cultures to look for possible infections and C diff” was the reply. Yes, my surgery could do the necessary tests upon receipt of a fax!!! from St.Thomas’. (A fax? How last century. What’s wrong with an email?)

I went and saw a GP who suggested increasing the Loperamide to the maximum I’m prescribed – 12 daily. After a further couple of days everything returned to normal. When I went to collect the test results they were negative so, as usual, nothing to explain the problem. However one of the GP’s receptionists commented that she hadn’t seen me for a while and thought I didn’t look well. She suggested I should see a GP again. There was a slot that afternoon and after discussing my case  I suggested that a blood test might be a good idea (having not had one for over a year).

When the results came back there were no real surprises except for my Hb which was 112. When I checked my previous results I had been around this level for 2 years. To me it seems low and the Ferrous Fumarate I have been taking for many years has had no effect. (Is it not supposed to be a short erm measure to correct an imbalance?`) I had mentioned it before to both my consultants and GP and it did not seem to cause them any great concern.

Call it serendipity but I just happened to see a conversation on Twitter between an eminent Professor (who specialises in iron deficiency) and one of the BBC health programme presenters that tend to dumb down health issues for the masses. His point was that simply taking iron supplements was not the solution to the deficiency. I joined the conversation and mentioned my particular issues. I got a prompt and unequivocal reply – “You, sir, need treatment”.

…and so to my dilemma(s). How much store can be put in my feeling well and being able to carry out any activities I wish to undertake? Do I really want to undergo another range of tests in an attempt to explain, for instance, my calprotectin level of 1300? I’ve already been through  multiple colonoscopies, biopsies and scans – all showing no evidence of the Crohn’s having restarted. Is “do nothing” a viable option or would such a “pathway” not even be contemplated in some institutions? Do I want to start taking a new drug treatment for my Crohn’s just in case it is becoming active? The standard treatment would have been a maintenance dose of Azathioprine but that has already attacked my bone marrow and caused my platelets to plummet. The most likely choice would now be one of the biologics with the possibility of going through a long trial and error process until the right one is found.

…and my final dilemma is how to broach the subject of opinions I have read on Twitter, not even some medical web page, without giving the impression that I do not trust my present treatment.

Top Trumps

The last blog was triggered by spotting an “I’m grateful for my IBD” post, this one is about another trend I’ve noticed – “Illness Top Trumps” or “my illness/condition is worse than yours”.

It’s played over SoMe, especially on Facebook forums. The “game” usually starts with a post along the lines of “IBS is worse than IBD” or “Ulcerative Colitis is worse than Crohn’s disease”. The ensuing discussions rapidly become very heated, abusive and always completely miss the point that two patients may have been diagnosed with a disease but experience its effects in vastly different ways. It’s QOL (Quality of Life) that matters. How much does the condition prevent you from living a “normal” life? Has it caused you any psychological issues?

The diversity of paths that each of us travels was made clear recently with the Twitter hashtag #MyIBDHistory. A friend of mine (and now fellow blogger – @bottomline_ibd) had this great idea (whilst idly daydreaming on a roasting hot afternoon) – could she condense her IBD history into just one tweet of 280 characters? Having succeeded she decided to release it on Twitter as the “#MyIBDHistory Tag Challenge”. Over 1,000,000 impressions later it has really taken off and resulted in many IBDers taking the challenge and posting their potted history.

The histories make fascinating reading and it’s very humbling when you realise just what some of the respondees have gone through, or are in the process of going through, under the catch-all umbrella of IBD. Each person has presented their story in a slightly different style and what has beem particularly gratifying is that the responses from others have been very supportive without a hint of oneupmanship.

There have also been positive reactions from HCPs who have also found the Tweets inspirational and informative. If you get a chance they are well worth a look. Personally I realised that despite having Crohn’s Disease for many years I have escaped lightly and for many years my QOL has been virtually unaffected.

There is another variation on Top Trumps based around “what I’ve got is so unusual that I’m very special”. These do not usually descend into conflict as who wants to argue with a special one?  (unless it’s Jose Mourinho). There’s a corollary to this – EIMs (Extraintestinal Manifestations). These may potentially have a far worse effect on QOL than the original disease. An EIM, taken in isolation, may be a relatively common issue but many patients will suffer from more, sometimes many more, than one EIM. By looking at their WHP (Whole Health Picture) the combination of multiple EIMs, together with the original disease, may add up to them also being “special”.

Confession time –  I have to admit that I’m not squeaky clean when it comes to oneupmanship. I have mentioned my surgery from 2010 many times (what do you expect from a Crohn’s patient blog) but haven’t been able to stop myself from quoting the surgeon who said it was “one of the most complex operations” that they had ever undertaken. There, I’ve done it again. I’ve tried analysing why I feel the need to mention this piece of information and why it is one of the few aspects of Crohn’s that makes me emotional. At first I thought it was a case of Surgical Top Trumps – “my operation was more difficult than your operation” but I’ve thought about it very long and hard and concluded it’s my sheer awe and surprise that a body and mind, my body and mind, could undergo such an ordeal, come out the other side, survive and thrive.

 

Grateful?

Every so often a post or podcast appears along the lines of “Why I’m grateful for my IBD” and every time I see those words I wince a little. Am I swimming against the tide? Am I the odd one out here? There is not one aspect of this disease (or its EIMs) for which I have any sense of gratitude.  I’m not doubting  those who are “grateful”. I can understand that,  just like IBD itself,  there are many “flavours” of coping mechanism and if it works for them then fine.

I’m not denying that I have met some fantastic people from the IBD Community, both online and in person, but then I’ve also done the same through work and hobbies….and I haven’t needed IBD to give my life direction, focus or convince myself I have staying power.

Having said I’m not at all grateful I quickly need to counter that by saying neither am I resentful or regretful. The worse thing I could do is get into an “if only” mindset ie. “if only I didn’t have IBD I could have….”. I have thought long and hard about this subject and made my peace. I can’t think of many things worse for one’s health/mental health than living a life of regrets.

Have I always taken this attitude? The honest answer is “I don’t know. I can’t remember“. My medical memory was reset around 2009 and before that I can recall very little. I have now managed to fill in the physical events with the help of a medical records, photo library and my wife’s amazing memory for dates. I cannot do the same for my emotions or feelings apart from knowing I was sh*t scared of going under the knife but I don’t think I had any bitterness at having Crohn’s.

When surgery became inevitable in 2009 my emotions could have gone in one of two directions. I  would have understood if i had become very anxious, given my attitude to surgery, but instead I went into a very relaxed, laid back mode. I’ve manage to maintain it ever since. Clearly a prolonged period of remission has helped but a couple of serious EIMs could have derailed it.

IBD has certainly taught me a lot both about the disease itself and ways of living a relatively normal life despite of the everyday issues that it raises….but “grateful”? Definitely not.

The Red Stuff

Friday 12th November 2010

At about a quarter past six I noticed that I appeared to be losing blood. I went off to the bathroom to investigate and found that he contents of my pouch had turned bright red. My immediate thought was that something had come apart internally and that I needed to get urgent medical attention. The level in the pouch was visibly increasing but not filling so fast that I would need to change it for a while.

My wife was already outside feeding the ponies so I went to explain to her and told her that I had a problem. I needed to get to hospital quickly. Knowing it was a Friday night and that A&E (Accident and Emergency) was likely to be busy we decided to call 999 rather than trying to organise a lift down there. I rang our neighbour to warn her what was happening and ask her to come and let the dogs out and give the ponies their late night haynets. We had no idea how long I’d be down at the hospital.

The ambulance turned up very quickly. Seven minutes from call to arrival. Once onboard the crew went through a series of tests and then we were off. No siren or blue lights. It wasn’t a very good ride in the back of the ambulance as they sway a lot and the country lanes around where we live are very twisty.

We arrived at East Surrey Hospital A&E at just after 7:15pm. One of the crew said: “we’re taking you into the Rapid Assessment Unit but don’t be fooled by the title”. His scepticism was unfounded and within 10 minutes I was laying on a bed having more tests and a cannula being inserted into my arm. I was then taken to the MAU (Medical Assessment Unit) but they were full so we had to wait in the corridor. This was probably the worst part of the experience because you couldn’t see what progress was being made in clearing the queue. I’m not sure what time I was actually wheeled into the Unit but it was probably around half past nine.

I was seen by one of the doctors and we went through my medical history and I explained what the current problem was. I got the distinct feeling that he wasn’t keen to explore my stoma himself and didn’t even suggest that we remove the bag to get a better look at it. He went off to ring one of the surgeons to see what should be done. At this point a friendly porter appeared to take me down for chest and abdominal x-rays. He remarked how busy they were and that it hadn’t been this bad since July. Surprisingly enough Friday and Saturday are not usually their busiest nights.

With the x-rays complete I was wheeled back to the MAU and it looked like I had missed my place in the queue. I was told that the plan was for me to be taken to the SAU (Surgical Assessment Unit). In the meantime the doctor came back and said that he needed to take an arterial blood sample which would probably take a couple of goes and would be very painful! Thanks for the warning. I needn’t have worried as he hit the artery first time and I had become very used to having needles, of varying lengths, stuck in me.

Rather than call for another porter the sister wheeled me down to the SAU herself. I was told that the doctor knew I was there and would be along to see me. It was now about 11:00pm and I’d still not seen anybody so my wife went to find out what was going on. The doctor was seeing another patient but would be with me shortly. A few minutes later she appeared and apologised that it would be necessary to ask me all the questions again. I had remembered to bring a copy of the discharge letter from St.Thomas’ which explained what the surgeon had done. As we had been unable to understand it completely, due to the long, medical terms, the doctor gave us a translation.

As she specialised in surgical cases she had no fear of removing the pouch. She then examined my stoma, inside and out, and came to the conclusion that the bleeding was external but I was right to have come down to the hospital. I asked her if she was considering giving me a blood transfusion but she said that unless my blood count was getting worse she was happy for me to be discharged. She did give me the option of staying in overnight if I was concerned but I decided that I would be OK. Other patients needs would be far greater than mine.

There was a short wait whilst the nurse removed the cannula and then I could get dressed. I rang my sister who very kindly came out and picked us up. We were home just gone one o’clock. Not what we had planned for our Friday evening. I was famished as I hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since 5:30pm. I grabbed some toast and a coffee and then went to sleep sitting up on the sofa.

What went wrong

When I saw the stoma nurse the following day she gave me a thorough examination and announced that I had developed an abscess below the stoma which I had not been able to see. The abscess had burst but “luckily” the blood had made its way into the pouch not my clothing.

…and another thing

A chance to combine the World Cup, gardening, Crohn’s Disease and colorectal surgery all in one post or maybe just a chance to do some navel gazing.

With the World Cup upon us once more my memory has been drifting back to when it was held in South Africa eight years ago and the situation I found myself in at the time.. A couple of posts ago I wrote about things I don’t/didn’t know about IBD and my unsated curiosity.  Here’s some other things that I’m curious about, bear with me.

In 2010 I knew I was heading for surgery. The pain in my abdomen/back was stopping me from getting a good night’s sleep. In May my consultant told me to expect  to go under the knife within 4 weeks at our local hospital. Preparations to get my life in order went into overdrive only to come to an abrupt halt when my wife and I were invited to attend an impromtu MDM with my consultant, his boss and their colorectal surgeon. The upshot was that the operation, or more specifically the recovery, was too complex for them to contemplate. They were referring me to St.Thomas’ in Westminster. You can imagine it was a bit of a bombshell.

A meeting with the surgeon at St.Thomas’ resulted in the date for the operation being set for the second week in October. (It couldn’t be September as he always went on holiday for the month!)

Strangely I started to feel a lot better and the pain improved greatly. I decided that one of the projects that had been on hold could go ahead – the construction of a pergola. It may not  sound very exciting  but it was quite a challenging piece of work, especially for someone about to undergo surgery.

Having designed the structure, ordered and collected the timber I spent many happy days and evenings digging the holes, cutting the joints and assembling the structure. It helped take my mind off the forthcoming operation. Although it was physical work it was also relaxing and, of course, tiring. Getting to sleep was not a problem.

A few days after starting….

The finished job

My constant companion throughout that period was the World Cup on the radio so when I heard the opening match between Russia and Saudi Arabia today (14th June) I was  immediately transported back to that hot summer, balmy evenings and re-ignited the questions…

In 2010 my guts were in a pretty bad way  – there were loops, fistulas and, probably most worryingly, my intestines had started to attach themselves to my back muscles (hence the back pain) and to vital organs.

One of the surgeons very kindly drew this diagram for me

The questions : If I was in such a bad way how did I manage to complete a physically demanding project. How much longer could I have continued without the “elective” surgery becoming “emergency” surgery. It was five months from when I had expected to have surgery to actually entering the operating theatre. It seems like a long time to wait.

I know I will never get an answer to my musings but once again curiosity is getting the better of me. I’ll just keep them on my lengthening list of “nice to knows“. Tune in next week for some more navel gazing (I’d like to commend the skill of the surgical team for still having a navel to gaze at.)

 

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.

My automedicography – a personal view