Tag: primary biliary cholangitis

This Thing Called End-Stage Liver Disease

This is another post about primary biliary cholangitis (cirrhosis) [PBC]. In my last post, I used the term End-Stage Liver Disease [ESLD]. It’s a very vague and barely useful designation. 

The good news is that my portal hypertension — once the subject of so many gruesome posts — has been effectively controlled by the Transjugular Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt [TIPS] I had installed in July 2015. I haven’t had a bleed since, and an exploratory endoscopy in the fall showed I now have a nice, smooth, pinkish esophagus instead of one with red streaks of varicose veins.

But I haven’t felt better. When I look back on what I could do in 2014 or 2013 and compare it with how I’ve felt the past nine months, I know I am at best holding steady.

So at my last hepatologist appointment, I asked the doctor straight out: Do I have ESLD? He looked taken aback, like this was an acronym that doctors use among themselves not with patients. But he said, yes. And so I said, how much longer do I have? Months? Years? And he said he expected years.

When the bleeds happened, they were potentially life-threatening emergencies. Still, I’d get patched up and leave the hospital the next day. Once they started coming much more often, anemia became a big issue until I got Injectafor iron infusions. I avoided remote locations and long airflights, but as nasty as they were, I now look back on the Bleed years (8/10 to 7/15) as the good old days.

I also haven’t had another bout of hepatic  encephalopathy [HE], one of the scariest ordeals of this whole PBC ghastliness. 

But there is a very low grade (comparatively) of HE, and especially when I am even more fatigued than usual, I can tell that I’m having trouble with short-term memory and learning new things. For example, my husband and I went to Washington DC last month, and I simply could not grasp the subway system. It’s hard to remember what day of the week it is; then again, there is little to distinguish them.

So what is ESLD? It’s odd. You will find a lot of sites with information on End-Stage Liver Disease, but there’s little mention of when Beginning becomes Middle goes to End. I’m not sure there is a Beginning or Middle variety. End-Stage Liver Disease [ELD]  itself is most commonly mentioned in discussing MELD scores; the M refers to Model, and a MELD score is a complicated and flawed scoring system for transplant urgency. The higher the score — and 40 or so seems to be the cap, the worse off you are. I’m at 12.

More often, I’ve found articles using a different terminology. The NY Times offers this simple comparison.

  • Compensated cirrhosis means that the body still functions fairly well despite scarring of the liver. Many people with compensated cirrhosis experience few or no symptoms.

  • Decompensated cirrhosis means that the severe scarring of the liver has damaged and disrupted essential body functions. Patients with decompensated cirrhosis develop many serious and life-threatening symptoms and complications.

But then there’s another approach using four levels.  

Here’s one that does it in three: inflammation, scarring, failure. I wonder if, since the liver is the only major organ that up to a point can regenerate new cells, it would be possible to get out of inflammation back to normal.

But cirrhotic cells are scarred and ruined; they aren’t going to come back to life. And my PBC continues to destroy the bile ducts, and this blockage continues to damage liver cells.

 

 

How PBC Became PBC

I haven’t updated since October of last year. I get comments now and then, asking how things are going. To catch you up if you are new here, I have  been writing about my battles with  Primary Biliary Cirrhosis. While I haven’t had any more esophageal bleeds or episodes of hepatic encephalopathy, this condition continues its destruction.

Although my bilirubin and albumin are worse than they were this time last year, it’s the psycho-social effects that have been devastating this winter. I intend to write more, but shorter, posts on those aspects of End Stage Liver Disease.

But first up is that I no longer have Primary Biliary Cirrhosis, according to the international health community.

I have instead Primary Biliary Cholangitis.

Cholangitis isn’t an altogether accurate a term to take the place of cirrhosis for this illness. I suppose cholangitis  was assumed a good enough switch since in both cholangitis  and primary biliary cirrhosis, the bile ducts are compromised.

But there are some very significant differences. Simple cholangitis is usually caused by a bacterial infection; primary biliary cirrhosis (cholangitis) is an auto-immune condition. The prognosis for simple  cholangitis is good if caught in time. There are a variety of treatments.

Primary Biliary Cirrhosis or Primary Biliary Cholangitis has one drug that may slow the progression of bile duct destruction. It will lead to cirrhosis and end-stage liver disease. How long this will take varies, but it will happen. The only fix is a transplant, and, since this is an auto-immune illness, it isn’t unusual for it to recur. The name made sense: primary (firstly), biliary (bile ducts destoyed), cirrhosis (inevitable effect in the long-run).

But at least the same letters apply, so PBC can become PBC.

Why change to a less accurate name?

Ignorance and prejudice. Although there are many conditions that can cause cirrhosis, the biggie is excessive alcohol use (of course, there are daily drinkers who do not reach end-stage liver disease) and hepatitis (and one of these can be caused by using dirty needles).

And so cirrhosis is a huge trigger word: this person’s lifestyle has caused her condition. For many, the social stigma is as bad as the condition itself, and the medical community decided these people have enough to deal with. They are not even close to fixing the disease, but lessening the instant self-righteousness of the unafflicted is within their range.

Say “I have primary biliary cirrhosis.” Most people hear something like “I gobblledly gook blab blab cirrhosis.” Next, they likely speculate on what vice is the cause of the problem.

It’s a rare enough illness that I have had to explain it to first responders and ER nurses.

You can feel what isn’t said: the emergency personnel have scraped up enough people killed by drunk drivers to have no sympathy for heavy drinkers.

Believe me, there are no heavy drinkers among those with PBC whose livers are failing. If the liver can no longer handle red meat, it isn’t going to be up to processing alcohol.

Maybe we once drank cheerfully and heartily. Maybe we were teetotalers. Neither would have made any difference.

At least the next time I’m hauled in my biggest problem with listing my medical history will be remembering how to spell cholangitis, and not dealing with all the baggage cirrhosis drags around.

 

Protein, Ammonia, Cirrhosis, and Hepatic Encephalopathy: What I Learned

My last post, “Hepatic Encephalopathy: On Knowing I Didn’t Know What I Knew I Know,” ended with me trying to cope with an episode of confusion, temporary loss of lifelong memories and inability to form new ones a week following the installation of a Transjugular Intrahepatic Portosystemic Shunt (TIPS) to deal with the portal hypertension resulting from cirrhosis, a consequence of Primary Biliary Cirrhosis (or Cholangitis) (Regular readers will be used to the growing “This is the house that Jack built” nature of my introductory sentences.).

I believe I have regained all I had lost of my memory. The treatment was (and continues to be as a preventive) an extreme laxative called Lactulose that “works by drawing ammonia from the blood into the colon where it is removed from the body.” It is a sickeningly sweet liquid that makes my intestines feel as if they’ve been invaded by frolicsome ferrets, but this transient discomfort is trivial compared to the frightful alternative of hepatic encephalopathy.

After the TIPS was installed, I was told to avoid fried food and red meat and I complied (by the way, pork is not “the other white meat” when it comes to ammonia: it is a red meat). However, because of the events of the two weeks preceding my encephalopathy (days at the nursing home, my mother’s death, 300 mile each way trip to UAB, two endoscopies with conscious sedation, general anesthesia with the TIPS, etc.) I had become very irregular, backed up as it were.  I was not getting food processed and through my digestive system efficiently, and certainly not quickly (now the Lactulose helps with that).

My understanding of why I should avoid red meat and eat small amounts of protein over the course of the day rather than in two or three sessions was slow in coming.

After release from the hospital, my family and I started a hunt for low-ammonia foods. No luck — just try to find the low ammonia diet. There are horrifying stories about “pink slime” and the use of ammonia to control e coli in food processing plants (remember that? The “pink slime” Wikipedia entry hasn’t been updated since 2013, which doesn’t mean the stuff isn’t still around.). Red meats and rind cheeses were listed as items to avoid if you suffer from cirrhosis, but there wasn’t a clear indication of why. Finally, I contacted a food scientist I knew who provided the key.

I was not going to find low ammonia foods. Ammonia is a by-product of the breakdown of proteins, whether they be animal or plant-based. The thing is, red meats and rind cheeses (and to a lesser extent, chicken and fish) are more protein-intensive than vegetable-based proteins, so more ammonia is produced during their digestion.

For most people this isn’t a problem. The liver takes care of the problem, as it handles other toxins consumed.

But a cirrhotic liver isn’t up to the task. Think of all the drug labels and commercials that tell you to consult with your doctor before using if you have an impaired liver.

Red meat should contain a similar warning.

From the 1950s (at least) into the first years of this century, cirrhotics who had experienced hepatic encephalopathy [HE] were told to eat little protein, period, and malnourishment was common among cirrhotics. As their bodies consumed their own muscle and fat for protein, ammonia was released, and thus HE was not avoided by not eating meat.

Now the advice is for cirrhotics to consume more protein than than non-cirrhotics, and I have been told that while it is most important to get enough protein — to eat chicken and fish if I need to — non-animal sources of protein are less of a challenge to my liver. I am still looking for studies on whether vegetarian or vegan diets are superior for preventing HE in contrast to those that include some animal protein. If it were possible to eliminate the need for Lactolose or rifiximin (an antibiotic used to prevent HE), I would go vegan.

It was easier to give up red meat than I would have imagined. Back when severe anemia was one of my major issues,  I was a staunch defender of meat-eating, arguing that for some of us, a vegetarian diet was not an option, that we couldn’t otherwise get the iron needed to raise our hemoglobin from the 8’s to the 12’s without transfusions or infusions. And I still think that universal vegetarianism isn’t practical, unless you want to require all who live in regions inhospitable to agriculture to eat processed foods shipped in from other climes (are there any Sami, Inuits, or Eskimo thriving on locally-produced vegetarian foods?).

Now I eat far less chicken and fish; they don’t dominate the plate but are supplements to the grains and vegetables, and I eat them only a few times a week. I eat a lot of beans and rice, oatmeal, grains. No fast food — and I don’t miss that at all.

There’s a relief to being forced to do what I’ve known for a long time I should do but have been too lazy to bother doing.

So far, I’ve had no more problems with HE. There are other theories about what causes hepatic encephalopathy, but the prevailing one is that when the liver can’t handle the ammonia that is a by-product of protein digestion, the ammonia crosses the blood-brain barrier, and the brain becomes a sink for this noxious toxin.

Still, it is amazing to me that cirrhosis has been recognized as a disease for hundreds of years and yet so many questions remain about its treatment and effects, but I suspect that may be because it is largely linked to alcoholism, and the stigma of cirrhosis as a lifestyle and avoidable disease.

My 13th — and Perhaps Final — Portal Hypertension Bleed

At the end of my previous post, My Mother’s Last Three Days, I announced that I had had my thirteenth portal hypertension bleed at my mother’s death bed.*

It had happened. A bleed. A big one. I was taken to the hospital by ambulance.

I think that I have never been nearer to a complete breakdown than I was that night in the ER. Why a bleed now? Even if she had had enough opiates to cloud her memory, my last memory of my mother will be this: not being there for her.

The usual thing, the IV’s, the history, the whole admissions rigmarole proceeded. I told the GI on call that night if I wasn’t going to be scoped in the morning when there may still be a chance of finding the source of the bleed, that I wouldn’t consent at all to an upper endoscopy. The gastroenterologists here have repeatedly delayed up to twenty hours between the start of a bleed and their looking for its source, and then are surprised when they find none. A bleed can stop on its own, and the IV medications, as I have explained before, aid this.

I was taken for the endoscopy at 8:30 or so in the morning.

When I was returned to the room, my husband was there. He had his news, and I had mine. His presence was enough to tell me what his was: my mother was dead.

Mine? The GI who did the endoscopy said that what she had seen was something she could not fix, and neither could her colleagues. I needed to get to a teaching hospital as soon as possible.

I had a stray blood vessel resting over two large varices. Normally, if I understood her correctly, this vessel could have been cauterized, but as it was positioned, there was a risk of burning through the vessel and into my varices, causing a massive bleed.

Things had gone for bad to worse. I was too distressed to be surprised, quite frankly.

So we got in contact with my hepatologist at the University of Alabama in Birmingham about six hours away, and an appointment was set so that he could have a look for himself first thing Monday morning.

Here are the pictures from the July 9 endoscopy clearly showing the problem in my esophagus. I think the doctor said the purple things were large varices that couldn’t be banded because of the blood vessel that couldn’t be cauterized because of its position.

In my next post, I’ll explain how things got worse — again.

*(To catch you up if you are new here, I have Primary Biliary Cirrhosis (or Primary Biliary Cholangitis), and since August 2010, I have had some minor and a some awful episodes of vomiting blood —  hematemesis — because of bursts varices in my esophagus. There have been lots of co-diagnoses along the way, from ordinary ulcer upper GI bleeds, to Cameron’s Erosions, to Dieulafoy’s Lesions, but as will become evident, whatever you want to call the spouting body, the source was likely always the same: the portal pressure in my portal vein in my liver measured 15 on July 16, 2015,  dangerously high. It is now 2 to 4. More on that later.)

3 in a row 4 in a row ang1 arrows angi2 angie3 angie-4