When Grace White was diagnosed with Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) in the mid-1990s, she never imagined how much the disorder would one day transform her life. “At the time – and for several years afterwards – the reflux was easily managed through medication,” she explained. “Even when I was told I had a hiatal hernia as a complication of GERD, it didn’t bother me. I went more than a decade without experiencing a single symptom.”
But all that changed almost overnight in the summer of 2010.
The medications that Grace had grown accustomed to taking each day to avoid reflux stopped working. Within a matter of weeks, simple activities – like bending over to pick something up or lying down to sleep – became unbearable.
“The pain was unlike anything I had ever felt before. My entire esophagus was burning constantly, and I couldn’t bear the discomfort unless I was standing or sitting upright. It was like I was carrying around a jar of acid in my throat with no lid,” she said.
Grace’s gastroenterologist quickly referred her to Farzaneh Banki, MD, director of the Memorial Hermann Southeast Esophageal Disease Center and assistant professor of Cardiothoracic Vascular Surgery at The University of Texas Medical School at Houston.
On her first visit, Dr. Banki ordered a spectrum of diagnostic tests to rule out other conditions of the esophagus and pinpoint the cause of Grace’s symptoms. “I was immediately impressed with the physicians and staff at Memorial Hermann Southeast,” said Grace. “It was clear that Dr. Banki wanted to get to the bottom of my pain just as much as I did. But beyond my condition, everyone truly cared about me as a person.”
“I remember the day I went in for a test of my gag reflex. After explaining the procedure, the technician could see I was terrified and wanted to do everything she could to make me feel more comfortable. When I asked her to pray with me, she didn’t hesitate. I knew I was in good hands from that moment on.”
Although her gag reflex tested normal, the results of other diagnostic exams indicated that Grace’s hiatal hernia had worsened. Her stomach was pushing up through her diaphragm and into her esophagus, causing the GERD to become much more severe.
As a result, the valve between her esophagus and stomach, known as the lower esophageal sphincter, was defective and could no longer prevent acid and non-acidic fluid traveling from the stomach into the esophagus.
“Aside from GERD and the hiatal hernia, Grace was in excellent health,” said Dr. Banki. “She had no problems with swallowing or with her stomach. Her esophagus even appeared to be in good condition, despite the potential for damage caused by severe reflux.”
In November 2010, Dr. Banki performed a Laparoscopic Nissen Fundoplication. Five small incisions were made in Grace’s abdomen where a camera and surgical instruments were inserted to perform the minimally invasive procedure. The hiatal hernia was fixed. Portions of the upper part of the stomach known as the fundus were wrapped around the lower portion of the esophagus to create a new functional valve in place of the lower esophageal sphincter.
Like most patients who undergo the laparoscopic approach, Grace’s recovery time was minimal compared to other more invasive surgical options. She was discharged the day following her procedure and returned to work the very next week. Although she was initially placed on dietary restrictions, Grace was able to return to her traditional eating habits after a post-procedure exam just two weeks after surgery.
“After the operation, I felt remarkable. The pain was finally gone, and I could lean forward and lay down to sleep again without practically choking on my own stomach acid,” said Grace. “It was the most remarkable transformation, and I owe it all to Dr. Banki and her team. Thanks to them, I finally have my life back.”