Tag: TIPS

How Am I? An Update on Dragging Along with Primary Biliary Cholangitis (Cirrhosis)

Roughly a year ago, I said, I’m done. No more pricks or scans. Longtime readers will know that my life from 2010 to 2015 had become a gruesome slough of gastric/esophageal varices bleeds, an uncommon complication of early and mid-stage cirrhosis (not so uncommon in end stage). My labs were never that abnormal during this period, so I was diagnosed with every weird ulcer subspecies in the field guide. Not until I had a shunt [TIPS] put in my liver in July 2015 could the portal hypertension be measured, and it was high.

I announced I was going to quit writing about this, but I get occasional questions, and I may as well keep the history going.

I have had no more bleeds, and that is a very good thing. I think the encephalopathy which followed had some lingering effects. My spatial sense isn’t what it used to be; I can go to the drugstore, which requires exactly one turn, and end up going in a circle. Subtraction of 3-digit numbers is hard. Short term memory isn’t too keen. I haven’t had any recurrences, and I think this is attributable in large part to eating absolutely no red meat or pork. But the fatigue, which is the most common complaint of people with PBC, seems worse.

It is hard to explain because it is not everyday tiredness. It doesn’t matter if I sleep 12 hours, after being up an hour or so I am going to be tired. I can press through, and a really active day is one where I go out to breakfast, walk the dog, and go to the store. I’ll pay for it the next day when I will be too tired even to read. Maybe if I did more, I would feel like doing more, you might think. But 2 days on is going to mean 2 days off, and 3 days on will be 3 off, and at some point I will quit enjoying being on, so if I don’t have to, why not stop?

Remember The Roadrunner cartoons when the coyote is squashed by a boulder, peels himself off the pavement, and then an Acme truck  comes barreling down and pancakes him again? It is like that. Still the coyote keeps chasing that roadrunner.

I vacillate between gratitude for every day — for security and safety and a loving husband who picks up my massive slack —, and weariness. Facebook can get to seem like those wretched newsletters people would send out with their Christmas cards, where all reports are of visits to exotic places by people who are legends in their own minds. Good on them. But Christmas newsletters came just once a year.

Since I don’t go out much, the feeling of being an alien increases. I look at these reports from a distant place. Stay out of a big box store for a year. Then visit. Lord, how much stuff there is. Who could possibly need this much stuff? I’ve bought one pair of shoes and one dress in the past three years.

Goodness me, how much time and money people spend on food. So much of social life seems predicated on food and alcohol, which I simply treat as something in the category of never again.  The most annoying problem I have may or may not relate to the PBC, but finally I have an appointment with an esophageal expert. It’s been going on for years. I’ve had the standard three tests for esophageal motility, but results were negative, no problem. I don’t care what the results of these swallowing tests conducted only with liquids are. It is not normal way too often to be able neither to swallow food all the way or get rid of it the opposite way. My hepatologist agreed (hurrah!).  I eat a lot of refrieds with rice. Smooshy and a fair protein source.

So yes, I did go back to have another set of sticks and an ultrasound done. I decided it would be stupid not to check on the TIPS. The TIPS is functioning; “patent” is the word of choice. The real time ultrasound had been going on for 40 minutes when the sonographer left to fetch the radiologist himself. There were veins she just could not find. Apparently, I have a strange body architecture.

At the appointment the next day, the hepatologist asked that I return for a CT scan. We had planned a trip to the beach, and went ahead, and I sat on the dunes and thought, isn’t this just dandy.

Then Monday I had the CT scan, which looked as expected, except for “small” varices in the stomach. Dear god. “Varices.” I thought I would never have to see that ugly word again.

Most people with PBC don’t haven’t problems with bleeds. A tiny number who have the shunt installed do develop gastric varices. Most of this little pool do not have varix bleeds. I don’t want to be a footnote to a footnote to a footnote. Neither will I be terribly surprised if I am one.

Advertisements

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.

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.