Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Pancreas stuff, #3
"In the matter of Patient X," read the letter from the state board of medical licensing, "we find no evidence of improper dispensing of narcotics. In the future, however," they went on, most helpfully, "we suggest you pay more attention to how your prescription behavior may appear." The fact that the letter was sent to my colleague and not to me made it no less infuriating. You did nothing wrong, they'd told him. But you need to pay more attention to how idiots like ourselves may react to your practice-habits, rather than to the needs of your patients. Brilliant.
It's been said that the main indication -- without which you ought not go ahead -- for surgical treatment of chronic pancreatitis is addiction to narcotics. Pain, in other words: pain unmanageable by any other means is what provides the rationale for operating on people with chronic pancreatitis. When Patient X had been sent to me, that's exactly the situation he was in, along with the typical debilitating malabsorption syndrome. The non-disciplined disciplined doc was a gastroenterologist, the best around, the one I'd go to if I needed one. Circumspect, brilliant, ethical, dedicated, hard-working, in case the idiots on the board hadn't noticed. But I'm getting off point. Bastards. Sorry. Pin-headed pricks. OK; my bad. Where was I?
Patients suffering from chronic pancreatitis are rarely if ever (as opposed to those with the previously-posted acute form) at death's door. Instead of (or as a result of) boiling away in an acute froth, their pancreases have hardened into a wooden wedge, stuck to and behind colon and stomach, functioning poorly, generating constant and sometimes crescendoeing pain. Neither able to produce the needed amount of digestive juices nor to dribble them freely into the gut, the chronically inflamed pancreas also may short its owner on insulin, making him/her diabetic. In pain, having stinky fat-laden diarrhea, diabetic: those people -- as I said in the first post in this series -- can be miserable enough to wish they were dead. Ol' Patient X was: he was at the end of his rope when I saw him. Coincidentally, the letter from the board announcing an inquiry (initiated by a concerned pharmacist) arrived at my friend's office about the time Mr. X arrived in mine.
Let it be said: surgery for chronic pancreatitis is no panacea. Outcomes are unpredictable, as they are with any therapy whose primary goal is reduction of pain. To the extent that surgical treatment is rational (well-selected, it is, in my opinion), it breaks down into two options: drain or remove. And the choice between those two approaches depends mostly on the pancreatic duct. If it's big and dilated, drainage is probably the way to go. If it's obliterated and/or filled up with tons of calcification, you might want to remove most (or all) of the pancreas. Given the previously described tough location, now distorted by scarring, and given the debility of losing all digestive enzymes (they can be taken in pill form, to marginally adequate effect) and of becoming a brittle diabetic, surgeons (this one, anyway) tend to choose door number one, when the opportunity presents itself, and to avoid door number two like the plague. But it's not simple. When there are lots of operations to accomplish the same goal, it follows that the perfect one hasn't been invented. This gives you an idea of the problem with pancreatitis. But I'm a simple guy. There's one operation I especially like.
Here's an example of a normal pancreatic duct: (the big thing on the left [black arrow] is a scope; the red arrow shows the duct.)
And here's a nicely obstructed and surgically approachable one:
I don't want to get all technical here. Let's just say it's fun do to this:
(And here is an example of why operative photographs are pretty much useless, compared to diagrams.)
Patient X loved it, too. Taking huge doses of narcotics for months, you'd think (especially if he were a drug seeker) that he'd soak them up like a parched pig post operatively. He didn't. In less than two weeks, he was off them for good. (Which sorta pudding-proofed the GI doc's argument that he was treating legitimate pain, and halted the inquiry. By the way: it's not the inquiry per se that hacked me off: it was the pissy letter.)
Because they've saved my hide a few times, I really have no business complaining about radiologists. But they expropriated some of my favorite operations; namely, draining pancreatic pseudocysts. Like draining pus, it's deeply satisfying, because it works: see cyst, drain cyst, say goodbye to cyst. Unlike people housing pus, however, most people who have a pancreatic pseudocyst don't feel bad; so you have to convince them they need it treated. It's true. But it's never comfortable to feel like you're talking someone into an operation. It's one reason I haven't gotten totally depressed over losing the operation to the radiopods. Another is that it comes along pretty rarely. Plus, in some locations, surgery is sometimes still the better choice.
A true cyst is a collection of glandular secretions fully surrounded by a wall made up of duct lining cells. A pseudocyst, in the context of pancreatic secretions, is a collection of pancreatic juice left over from acute pancreatitis, formed into a defined sac, but surrounded by, well, just stuff. Scar tissue, whatever. Small ones, recently formed, have a decent chance of going way on their own. Big ones risk getting infected, or spontaneously draining into the rest of the abdominal cavity; which is why draining them is a good idea. Paradoxically, I suppose, the dangerous anatomy I've talked about in this series turns out to be good when it comes to draining pseudocysts: stuck to the back of the stomach, a cyst can be drained by opening into the front of the stomach, confirming the location with a needle out the back, then cutting down on that back wall and into the cyst.
A row of sutures around the edges of the hole prevents leakage, and eventually the cyst just withers away into the stomach, sealing back up like it was never there. The radiologists do that, now, with a needle (followed by a tube) poked through the abdominal wall, the front and back of the stomach, and into the cyst. Works great. Dammit.