Hepatic Encephalopathy: On Knowing I Didn’t Know What I Knew I Know

This post assumes you’ve read the two preceding ones: “My 13th — and Perhaps Final — Portal Hypertension Bleed” and “In Which a Transjugular Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt (TIPS) Is Installed in My Liver.” This post is my subjective, and given the subject, patchy account of a few dreadful days. I will share what I later learned about hepatic encephalopathy in a future post.

For well over half a century, I’ve known the answer to the question: What is your birthday?

Even when I was missing my four front teeth and saying “December twenty-six” was a twister, I could answer that question: It’s the day after Christmas.

On July 23, 2015, one week after my TIPS procedure, I couldn’t find the answer. I knew I knew it, and that knowing—that is, knowing this was happening—that I had lost a nearly lifelong memory—was horrifying.

I was suffering from hepatic encephalopathy.

My liver could not handle the ammonia it normally filtered, the ammonia had crossed the blood-brain barrier, and I was unable to make new memories or access information long stored and always before easily within reach.

I left the hospital Sunday, July 19, 2015. The installation of my Transjugular Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt (TIPS) was deemed a success. My portal hypertension, which was 15 (dangerously high) when the radiologists began the procedure, had dropped to a normal range of 2-4. At first my liver function numbers were all over the place, but that was to be expected. My ammonia levels were high, but had steadily dropped. My digestive system seemed to have woken up from the general anesthesia. I complained of constipation, but I did have a bm.

I know that Monday I slept all day, and I expect I did on Tuesday and Wednesday as well. I had had a rough two weeks.

The first weirdness was  pre-dawn Thursday. I could not get warm. I like a cold room when I sleep, and keep a lot of covers handy year-round. But I could not warm up.

At some point Thursday morning my husband noticed I wasn’t making sense when he asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink. I was somnolent, very hard to rouse. I have no memory of this.

He told me he called my primary care physician and gastroenterologist. It was only a few days later that I remembered anything at all about having been at the GI’s. Leaving the house, I walked right past a huge display of flowers that had arrived that morning from my brother: I had no memory of them when my husband mentioned them later.

I have a vague memory of either getting into or out of the car at the doctor’s, of looking up and seeing my daughter had joined us in the consulting room, and of sitting in the room (I guess that I wasn’t lying down because they didn’t want me to sleep). I’m told that the physician’s assistant offered to send us along with a prescription for Lactolose, a strong laxative which I’ll discuss in the next post, but since my husband and daughter wouldn’t have known what to do if I didn’t respond to this drug or what to expect or danger signs, they—I believe quite rightly—chose to take me down the street to the ER.

I have no memory of getting there or of the usual procedures (and I’ve been in the ER enough to know), like signing in, waiting in the first waiting room area, going to the triage nurse, and having vitals taken. I do remember being in the second waiting area, and I guess all the action had woken me up enough so that I realized what was happening.

Hepatic encephalopathy is the complication of a TIPs I feared the most because it involves your ability to think and remember. At its worst, it can lead to coma, sometimes reversible, sometimes not.

To the other people in the waiting room, I must have looked fine – no ice packs, bandages, vomit bag, etc. But each moment that passed I believed I was closer to losing my mind. At some point I must have asked for a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) bracelet because much later I noticed I was wearing a purple bracelet I’d never seen before.

At some point—an hour? two?—I was taken back into the examining area.

After a while, I said to my husband, aren’t they going to do anything? They haven’t even started an IV. They always start IVs. He said, look at your hand.

I looked down, and saw I had an IV. I in fact had what I’ll call a double-barreled I on the back of my hand—a painful place for a stick—and I am one of those people with small veins that roll, etc.

Was I too somnolent to feel an IV going in? Did I feel it but was unable to remember having felt it? Was I, in other words, unable to form new memories?

Then came the questions.

  • What is your phone number? I hadn’t a clue.
  • What is your birthday? I know this, I do, I know this. I couldn’t find it.
  • What month is it? 12?
  • Try again. 6?

How strange. I have this very vivid memory of not knowing these answers.

(Later it occurred to me that the oddness of my response – 12, 6 – rather than the names of the months was because I was still searching for my birthday (12/26) and could not make the leap to the new question. My phone number I simply had to relearn, and it took til Sunday morning before I got it right routinely.)

The rest of Thursday is vague to me. I don’t know if I had anything to eat that day. I can’t tell you if it was day or night when I got into a room. This might not seem unusual, except that here going from the ER to the in-patient hospital requires an ambulance ride across a street. But I remember being able to get from the gurney to my bed without help.

Then it was Friday. I remember very little of it until the evening. Then it was time to start trying to figure out what had happened.

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