Reflux disease can force ‘new normal’


Robert "Jerry" Ballard talks to his wife Eunice about a railroad lamp.

Robert "Jerry" Ballard walks, in front of his Troy house, with his wife Eunice,

For the Troy Daily News

TROY — Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) isn’t just an occasional nuisance that sneaks up on its victims and then quietly goes away. For at least 20 percent of Americans, it’s a disease that can rob them of their quality of life, said Stewart Lowry, MD, with Miami County Surgeons in Troy.

“GERD is something that can take over someone’s life,” said Dr. Lowry, who practices with Premier Health Specialists. “It can interrupt someone’s sleep, and can force them to eat things they otherwise would not like or at times aren’t necessarily convenient. Tests have proven what we suspected: People with GERD can have a poor quality of life.”

GERD is also known as heartburn or acid reflux and is most often described as a burning sensation in the chest, right behind the breastbone. More than half of Americans experience GERD symptoms at some point during the year and between 20 to 30 percent experience it much more frequently, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In most cases, GERD symptoms can be handled by over-the-counter medication or lifestyle changes, however, there are times when further medical attention is needed, Dr. Lowry said.

“Painful or difficult swallowing, bleeding, vomiting or anemia, which results in low blood count or unexplained weight loss are symptoms that need to be taken seriously,” he said. “In some situations, acid reflux can be a very serious medical condition. It can scar the lower esophagus which can eventually block swallowing or there can be a change in the lower esophagus, known as Barrett’s esophagus, which is a precursor to cancer.”

Perhaps what is most alarming is the growing number of people who are dealing with these symptoms. Hospitalizations with either a primary or secondary GERD diagnosis increased by more than 200 percent between 1998 and 2005, according to a health care research collaboration called HCUP, which includes various government health agencies and national health care associations.

Long-time Troy resident Jerry Ballard knows just how quickly acid reflux can progress and eventually take over one’s life. The 72-year-old retiree sought the help of a digestive specialist two and a half years ago when over-the-counter medication wasn’t helping. His food wasn’t going down his esophagus smoothly and at times would feel stuck. He tried prescription medication for a couple of months, but when an increased dosage didn’t seem to help, he and his doctor knew it was time for a new option.

Imaging showed that the muscle between the esophagus and the stomach had grown from its normal circular size to the shape of an oval. It was also discovered that Mr. Ballard had a hiatal hernia, a condition in which part of the stomach is pushing up into the esophagus. Mr. Ballard was referred to Dr. Lowry who recommended a common minimally invasive surgical procedure called a Nissen fundoplication. About 85 percent of surgeries performed on GERD include Nissen fundoplication.

The surgery, which is performed through five small incisions around the patient’s stomach, takes the upper curve of the stomach and wraps it around the esophagus. It is then sewn in place so the lower portion of the esophagus can pass through a small tunnel of stomach muscle. This strengthens the valve between the esophagus and stomach and helps stop acid from backing up into the esophagus. Mr. Ballard’s hiatal hernia, which can cause GERD, was also repaired during the surgery.

Mr. Ballard was extremely pleased with the outcome of the surgery and within days could already notice a difference. He was amazed at the small amount of discomfort he had at his incision area and within three days he could sense his food was going down much better. “I would say that in most cases, this type of surgery can cure GERD,” Dr. Lowry said. “A large percentage of patients are able to stop their medication after surgery and enjoy long-lasting improvement of their quality of life.”

Prior to surgery, Mr. Ballard’s GERD had progressed to the point where he was waking up in discomfort every two hours at night, and experiencing stomach pain and bloating. He is hopeful that the coming year will mark a new beginning.

“I can say my outlook and approach to the things in life finally look doable. I finally want to do things again,” Mr. Ballard said. “I am already seeing that I can return to the top of my game.”

For more information on the laparoscopic surgery for GERD or to find a Premier Health Specialists physician near you, visit www.premierhealthspecialists.com.

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