No Stomach, Kept Eating Steak

From the Surgeonsblog archive, original post date 9/23/06

Speaking of gastrectomy, as I was in the previous post, there’s another patient I’d like you to know about. But first, a word regarding gastric surgery in general: it’s fun. Unfortunately, it’s much less common nowadays, because those doggone scientists have come up with excellent drugs to prevent and/or treat ulcers, which used to be by far the biggest reason for operating on stomachs. Too bad for me, good for you. Anyhow, there are several things that make stomach surgery fun, uncommonness being high on the list. Also, richly endowed with blood supply, the stomach tends to heal well, no matter what you do to it. And, depending on how much stomach is removed, there are lots of ways to put things back together, each with its own nuance and technical challenges. Plus, you get to say the very cool surgical name, Billroth, when talking about a couple of those reconnections.

billroth_1aChristian Albert Theodore Billroth (Teddy-boy to his friends) is one of the main inventors of abdominal surgery. Born in the 1820s, he was working with a clean slate: everything he tried was the first time it had been done. My mind can hardly encompass what that must have been like; and not only in terms of technique. He had at his disposal the most minimal of anesthesia, few (and often home-made) tools, no IV fluids, no antibiotics. Not to mention an uncovered voluminous beard. It’s amazing. And whereas it’s true that (as my mentor said) the patient, ultimately, takes all the risk, still men such as he had a kind of bravery that I find astounding; not to mention provocative of envy.

After removing a portion of stomach, it’s necessary, of course, to reattach the remnant to the intestine. Among the choices shown in the above link, the amount of stomach remaining has much to do with selecting: the ideal is the Billroth 1, because it is the most “natural,” if you will. (I know I will.) But hooking to the duodenum is limited by the fact
that it (the duodenum) is fairly-well fixed in place; so if the gastric remnant can’t be pulled down there easily, you have to close off the duodenal stump and bring the closest bit of small intestine up to the stomach. That’s a Billroth 2 operation.

It has more potential problems: duodenal stump leak, bile and pancreatic juices building up in the stump and/or periodically squirting too briskly into the stomach (bile and pancreatic juice drain into the first part of the duodenum, and the duct through which that happens is one reason the duodenum can’t be moved much). If you take away the whole stomach, a whole lot of plumbing is necessary.

I get a kick out of that stuff. In fact, it’s better than the illustration above: if you do it as shown, there’s no reservoir for food. I like to bend the intestine around in the shape of a “P” (a backwards one) and sew the top of the P to the esophagus. The loop of the P (which involves, as you can imagine, an extra suture-line to connect the bottom of the loop to the vertical part) makes a nice holding tank, and allows people, more often than not, to eat quite satisfactorily. That’s what I proposed to do for Arthur, and it totally freaked out his wife.

Already slight and small, Arthur had been diagnosed with stomach cancer, in a location that demanded total gastrectomy. He was a “whatever-you-say-Doc” sort of guy, but his wife was literally beside herself. Vibrating in such a way as to appear to be two people must be how the “beside herself” expression came to be. That’s what she was doing. “How Picture 1can he live like that? He’ll starve to death!! Look at him!! How can I feed him? What can he eat? I can’t cook like that. What’ll I do? What’ll I do?” It’s certainly reasonable to be shocked at the idea of an absent stomach, but she was letting my words bounce off without sticking: I was telling her I thought he’d be able to eat whatever he wanted, maybe in smaller portions. There was no special diet. No instructions. He should eat whatever sounds good to him, and we can see how it all works out. Boing, boing, my words came back un-received. She was as refractory to input as a crashed hard-drive. But there wasn’t much choice; and as our meetings continued, I managed — calling upon my greatest communication skills — to lower the vibratory amplitude. Calm, such as it was, prevailed.

The operation went fine, despite finding that the tumor had grown directly into the left lobe of the liver, requiring that I take the whole stomach and a pie-slice of liver as well. Arthur made an uneventful recovery, and was ready for discharge in a few days. I stopped by his room for a final goodbye, to find his wife — who’d relaxed a bit until then — wide-eyed and pale-faced, vibrating anew as a dietician instructed her on a “gastrectomy diet.” WTF?? Who requested that consult? Delicately as possible, I invited the dietician to join me in the hall, where I explained that this what exactly what the woman did NOT need; I’d take care of the dietary management myself. Had anyone requested the visit? No, she said. She’d just noted that the man had had a gastrectomy, and had taken it upon herself — per some protocol or other — to make the connection. I explained the peculiarity of the situation, to which she smiled nicely, and returned to the room and took up where she’d left off, as Mrs. Arthur levitated to the ceiling.

It may not be a surprise to regular readers here that this event sat uncomfortably with me. For now, suffice it to say there were communications. It’s my opinion that there are lots of very useful services provided by many professionals attached to a hospital. And they should be used. When invited.

Well, I managed figuratively to hose Mrs down. And how did Arthur do with his extensive cancer and large treatment? Two answers: first, about ten years later I took his gallbladder out. Second: around a year after the gastrectomy, my wife and I were eating at a local steak joint. Couple of tables away was Arthur chowing down on a nice New York strip (medium rare, I’d say) and a baked potato, as his wife, calm and cool, did likewise. They had dessert, too.

OnSurg thanks Dr Schwab, creator of Surgeonsblog, for permission to re-post. Dr Schwab is also the author of Cutting Remarks: Insights and Recollections of a Surgeon.





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