Article originally published Fall 2018 The Monitor magazine.
When Marilyn Stephenson is asked to describe what life was like with chronic heartburn, a condition that plagued her for years and even landed her in the hospital, the word “chaos” always immediately comes to mind.
“I would tell people there was a lot of chaos going on inside of me,” she said. “The aches, the pain, the burning, the belching – that was my life and I had learned to live with it.”
Like many patients, Marilyn believed for a long time that her esophageal problems were the result of a sensitive stomach. She never went anywhere without her antacids, all while knowing that if she indulged in something spicy or acidic, she would pay for it later.
“There would be times where food would get lodged in my throat; I wasn’t choking, but I could feel that something was stuck, which would cause 5-10 minutes of panic as I tried to get it up,” Marilyn said. “Once that finally happened, I would be fine.”
It’s a scenario that Tonya Mundy, nurse coordinator for the Fairfield Medical Heartburn Center, knows all too well. A former reflux sufferer herself, Tonya sees patients like Marilyn on a weekly basis who are battling the pain, discomfort and embarrassment that accompanies acid reflux or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
“People don’t realize heartburn/reflux can lead to bigger problems,” Tonya said. “It can affect your health, your well-being and also your entire family. When your loved ones see you suffering, they suffer, too.”
The Fairfield Medical Heartburn Center is supported by a team of multidisciplinary physicians who provide comprehensive diagnosis and treatment of GERD (see “Take Note” box). As the nurse coordinator, Tonya offers free consultations for patients who are ready to find relief from their reflux symptoms. During the consultations, she provides education and talks about testing and treatment options. She also shares her own story.
“The way Marilyn described reflux is spot on, it feels like chaos,” Tonya said. “It becomes a part of your life and you don’t realize how bad you feel with it until you experience life without it.”
Marilyn said she was introduced to the Heartburn Center and Tonya in late 2017 after a particularly concerning episode of regurgitation.
“I had attended a family gathering where I had my usual pizza and pop and later that night, I woke up to this wave of acid coming up,” she said. “It felt like someone had lit a torch inside of me.”
At the time, Marilyn was on an anti-reflux medication that had, up until that point, been providing her with some relief. Concerned about this sudden setback, Marilyn went to see her primary care physician, David Scoggin, M.D. During the visit, Dr. Scoggin handed her a list that would end up changing her life.
“It contained all of the foods I could eat and all the foods I couldn’t eat, and he told me I needed to go on this diet right now,” Marilyn said. “I was mad; I had gone from this pill, which had helped me for a long time, to a restricted diet.”
Marilyn said she gave herself 24 hours to make a decision – did she want to eat whatever, and potentially experience another frightening episode of regurgitation, or did she want to go on the diet and feel better?
In the end, she picked the diet. She then scheduled an appointment with the Heartburn Center to undergo testing and meet with Scott Johnson, M.D., of the Fairfield Medical Heartburn Center, to discuss surgery options. With their help, Marilyn began to take control of her health, completely eliminating all the foods from her diet that had been making her sick. Within just two days, she started to notice a difference.
“I wanted to heal my esophagus and that’s what I did,” said Marilyn, who is no longer experiencing heartburn and has lost more than 50 pounds.
Marilyn said changing the way she eats wasn’t as difficult as she imagined. As someone who loves to bake, she started to have fun switching up recipes to make meals more heartburn-friendly or, as her family jokingly calls it, “GERD for you.” She sells her baked goods in the FMC cafeteria and is now looking to sell some GERD-friendly ones, as well.
“I’ve had people ask me, ‘do you want to live the rest of your life on this diet’?” Marilyn said. “To be honest, I don’t think about tomorrow or the future, I just focus on today. And I don’t call it a diet – I call it a new lifestyle.”
“GERD” FOR YOU
Tonya said there are many different options patients can consider when it comes to finding relief from heartburn or GERD. Following the initial nurse consultation, patients are encouraged to undergo testing to determine if what they are suffering from is indeed reflux. Once that diagnosis is made, a Heartburn Center physician will meet with the patient to discuss his or her options, which may or may not include surgery.
“Only a slim portion of our patients choose to do surgery; the majority are able to control their reflux through medication or lifestyle changes,” Tonya said. “Every patient’s path is different.”
For Tonya, surgery ended up being the best option to treat her reflux; in 2017, she had the LINX® Reflux Management System procedure and is no longer experiencing reflux. The LINX is a small, flexible band of magnets enclosed in titanium beads that is surgically placed around the esophagus to keep the weak lower esophageal sphincter closed.
For Marilyn, surgery was something she didn’t want to undergo unless it was absolutely necessary.
“We try to always go the easiest route for the patient,” Tonya said. “It’s been so rewarding to be able to help someone like Marilyn accomplish her goals and then see the results of her hard work.”
Marilyn said her best advice for other patients suffering from reflux is to not ignore their symptoms or brush them off as “just a little heartburn.” Over time, reflux can cause serious complications to the esophagus, including cancer.
“People don’t realize that it can be a bigger problem than just heartburn,” Marilyn said. “That’s why I thank God for the Heartburn Center. They changed my way of thinking and, ultimately, changed my life.”
Meats: Ground round or ground sirloin, flank steak, skinless chicken breasts and turkey
Seafood: Wild fish, shrimp and lobster
Grains: Multi-grain or white bread, cereal, oatmeal, bran, crackers, brown rice, pasta, corn, pretzels
Dairy: Egg whites, low fat milk, almond milk, soy milk, rice milk, feta cheese, non-fat cream cheese, non-fat sour cream, soy cheese, plain yogurt
Vegetables: Arugula, asparagus, broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, chard, collards, cucumber, eggplant, green beans, kale, leeks, lettuce, parsley, peas, baked potatoes, pumpkin, radish, spinach
Fruit: Apples, avocados, bananas, berries, cantaloupe, honeydew, mangos, papaya, peaches, pears, pineapple, plums, prunes, watermelon
Other: Ginger, fennel, fresh herbs, low-fat salad dressing