Article originally published Fall 2022 in The Monitor magazine.
At 77, Karen Kampe, of Logan, knows her body. So when she began experiencing severe chest pain one evening, she didn’t hesitate to get it checked out at her local hospital. During that visit, she was examined and prescribed anti-reflux medications to ease her symptoms. Karen returned home that night, but the pain continued. Not wanting to take any chances, Karen asked her daughter, Jenny, to take her to the Emergency Department at Fairfield Medical Center. Her persistence would end up saving her life.
For about 20 years, Karen had been living with a hiatal hernia that she had been told was impossible to correct. A hiatal hernia occurs when part of the stomach slips upward into the chest cavity. Most of the time, the condition is harmless and may go undetected for several years. It can, however, contribute to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), causing symptoms such as heartburn, belching, pain, and shortness of breath. For years, Karen had been controlling those symptoms with omeprazole, a medication designed to reduce stomach acid.
Upon learning Karen’s history, her care team at FMC zeroed in on her hiatal hernia as the cause of her pain. Further testing confirmed that a portion of Karen’s stomach was now trapped and twisted within her chest cavity, limiting blood flow and killing the affected tissue. The condition, known as a strangulated hernia, can be fatal without immediate medical attention. Karen was immediately rushed into emergency surgery with Jeffrey Yenchar, MD, of General Surgical Associates. Dr. Yenchar also serves as the medical director of the Fairfield Medical Heartburn Center.
“When we see patients with larger hiatal hernias, their symptoms aren’t always just reflux related. These can be shortness of breath or trouble swallowing,” Dr. Yenchar said. “In the past, people felt that you couldn’t fix these hernias. But now with new technologies – like new mesh and robotic surgery – we can take patients who have 50-60 percent of their stomach in their chest and restore everything back to where it needs to be.”
The surgery not only saved Karen’s life, but now she’s enjoying a better quality of life and improvements in her overall health.
“The thing I recognized the most is that my breathing is better,” Karen said. “Dr. Yenchar mentioned that it’s because my lungs now have more room to breathe. I don’t have to use the inhaler or nebulizer anymore, and I seem to have more energy.”
Karen also is using her experience to raise awareness. After learning about the connection between seemingly ordinary heartburn symptoms and potentially more complicated hernias, Karen now advocates for others to make an appointment with the Fairfield Medical Heartburn Center if they are experiencing symptoms of GERD.
“If you’ve got a problem, and you just halfway deal with it it gets worse,” Karen said. “There’s no need to let that happen.”
Heather Luttrell, Fairfield Medical Center’s Heartburn Center coordinator, works with patients to help them find lasting relief from GERD. “Not all hiatal hernias cause problems, and thankfully, a medical emergency like Karen’s is rare,” Heather said. “However, it’s not uncommon for hiatal hernias to cause or contribute to heartburn symptoms.”
Heather strongly recommends discussing testing and treatment options for GERD symptoms with the Heartburn Center. “Many people do not realize that there are other options available aside from daily medications that only ease heartburn and reflux symptoms,” she said. “We offer state-of-the-art diagnostic testing and treatment options, such as minimally invasive surgical procedures, to stop heartburn for good. A hiatal hernia can also be fixed during these same procedures.”
While Karen wishes her condition had never progressed to such a dire state, she is grateful to Dr. Yenchar and the ED team for their quick recognition of her critical situation. She’s now back to doing the activities she loves to do; she and her many animals enjoy a peaceful life in the scenic Hocking Hills, where she takes delight in spending time outdoors tending to her garden.
“I was in excellent hands,” Karen said. “The staff at Fairfield Medical Center was absolutely super. I really didn’t think I was going to make it, but I came out smiling.”
Learn more about heartburn care at Fairfield Medical Center, or call 740-689-6486 to schedule your consultation.