Life after severe acid reflux

UC Irvine Health doctor gives college student an end to years of daily suffering

April 01, 2014

Jessica Deutchman vividly remembers her first episode of acid reflux. She was at Disneyland and just 9 years old.

“It was as if a fire came up my throat and into my mouth,” the Chapman University senior said. “I'd never felt anything like it.”

The pain subsided, but it marked the beginning of Deutchman's 12-year battle with gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

“In GERD, stomach contents flow up into the esophagus — the tube connecting the throat and stomach,” explained Dr. William E. Karnes, a gastroenterologist at the H.H. Chao Comprehensive Digestive Disease Center (CDDC), part of UC Irvine Health. “This usually happens with weakening of the lower esophageal sphincter, a muscle that acts as a valve between the stomach and esophagus.”

Some people with GERD have relatively mild symptoms, but Deutchman's were severe, and included daily episodes of reflux and vomiting. Unable to eat or live normally, and often absent from school, she became increasingly malnourished and withdrawn. Despite visits to many doctors elsewhere, she continued to suffer. Some doctors even suggested she was making herself ill.

Remarkably, Deutchman graduated from high school and entered college. But by her junior year, stress caused her symptoms to worsen. That's when her mother learned about the digestive disease center.

“When I first met Dr. Karnes, he put his hand on mine and said, I can't believe you're going through this,̕ ” Deutchman said. “It was the most incredible gesture a doctor had ever shown me. He was the first angel in my life.”

Tests showed that Deutchman had severe GERD. Although Karnes was able to successfully control her symptoms with medications, he worried about their long-term side effects. So he referred her to CDDC director Dr. Kenneth Chang, who recommended an outpatient procedure called Stretta® to strengthen her lower esophageal sphincter.

“Stretta uses radiofrequency energy, delivered through a special catheter, to heat and tighten the muscle,” Chang explained. “It's a minimally invasive alternative to major GERD surgery.”

Deutchman underwent the Stretta procedure in May 2013. She hasn’t vomited since, and her health has improved dramatically.

“The last few months have been the fullest, most amazing of my life,” she says. “When I graduate this spring, the sky's the limit. Dr. Chang didn't change my life — he gave me a life.”

Does GERD affect you or someone you love? It’s important to know the facts: GERD increases the risk of esophageal cancer, as well as a precancerous condition called Barrett’s esophagus. UC Irvine Health digestive disease specialists have pioneered the use of the most advanced approaches to diagnose and treat these conditions and other disorders of the esophagus.

To diagnose Barrett’s esophagus, UC Irvine Health CDDC doctors use an imaging technique that visualizes tissue at the cellular level in real time. This allows them to detect and remove abnormal cells in a single, nonsurgical procedure.

For patients with esophageal cancer, these and other minimally invasive techniques can provide the best outcomes with the fewest complications. They include radiofrequency ablation, which uses heat to destroy cancer cells, and endoscopic mucosal resection, which removes early-stage tumors without surgery. As experts in these methods, CDDC specialists have trained physicians from around the world. Learn more about GERD at ucirvinehealth.org/gerd.

Read Jessica's full story in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of UC Irvine Health ›

— UC Irvine Health Marketing & Communications

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