To learn more about the Complex GI Team at Northwest Community Healthcare, click here.
Ann Zigrossi was told time and again that she didn't have a fighting chance against her illness—that nothing could be done. She was left with a death sentence and without hope.
But that's not the end of this story. Or even the middle. This is a story of perseverance. Of meeting the right people at the right time, so that the prognosis would be proved wrong. It's a story with a happy ending.
One morning in April 2009, Ann felt as if she was having a heart attack. "I was never sick before, and I didn't know what it was," the 47-year-old Joliet resident says.
So, she was taken to the emergency room at her hometown hospital. The diagnosis: a severe case of pancreatitis, in which a large benign mass growing on Ann's pancreas caused the organ to malfunction. While not always the case, this condition can be terminal, as it was in Ann's situation. Pancreatic tumors don't have to be cancerous to take a life.
"They told me there was nothing that could be done because of the location of the mass," Ann says. "It had settled on the main blood supply to my body, kinking it like a hose, and was crushing my bile duct so nothing was flowing through."
Over time, the blood vessels from the artery snaked out with new branches, making surgery on the pancreatic tumor impossible—or so she was told by numerous doctors. In fact, she visited hospitals in Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Texas, painstakingly copying her records, making appointments, scheduling tests and, ultimately, depleting her life savings, all the while getting weaker. "The surgeons said there's nothing anyone can do," Ann says. "That was it for me. I couldn't take another test, another needle and another rejection."
Almost like an act of fate, Ann's sister-in-law happened upon an article in the newspaper one morning that highlighted the successes of the Complex GI team at Northwest Community Healthcare.
Ann says she was reluctant to go to NCH at first. "I didn't want anything to do with it. I had given up hope, and I couldn't take another rejection," she says.
But when she read the story, it hit a nerve. "It sounded just like me. My family called NCH for me, and I said I'd do it—I'd see another doctor—just one more time."
From the minute she walked in the door, the experience at NCH was different from all the other hospitals she had visited, Ann says. "When I asked what I needed to do, they said: 'Nothing. We will take care of it all,' " she remembers. After months of constantly coordinating her own care, this was like a whole new world.
Ann was then introduced to a streamlined, holistic, patient-centric approach to treatment, which was coordinated by a nurse navigator who took care of scheduling the myriad of tests and procedures leading up to surgery. It was completely different from her experiences at all those far-flung hospitals, Ann says. "I didn't have to do a thing but show up," she says. "For the first time, I was able to concentrate on me."
The multidisciplinary program at NCH is acknowledged as a leader in treating complex GI and pancreatic diseases and often performs far more procedures than other hospitals. Team leaders Malcolm Bilimoria, MD, a surgeon at NCH, and gastroenterologist Willis Parsons, MD, are ranked as Top Doctors in their field in the Consumers' Guide to Top Doctors. Ann says that during her consult with the team one phrase leapt out at her: "We can help."
"A big plus of the NCH program is that we've done a lot of pancreas and bile duct work … I have performed a high number of endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatographies (ERCP)—something on the order of 14,000," Dr. Parsons says. "Most gastroenterologists who do ERCPs do 20 a year. We have significant experience … so it's easier for us to make decisions on what tests to do and what direction to take."
After consulting with Dr. Bilimoria, Ann saw Dr. Parsons so he could get an accurate assessment of the tumor. He conducted an ultrasound and an ERCP, which uses a flexible scope to look at digestive system functions, like bile ducts.
The verdict: a dire situation.
"She had chronic pancreatitis that was so severe and so unrelenting that it consumed her life—she was living pain pill to pain pill," Dr. Bilimoria says. So, a team was quickly assembled.
"We've got a system that allows the patient to see the experts quickly and get the procedures done on a timely basis," Dr. Parsons says. And, it helps that Ann tapped a hospital that is an acknowledged leader in complex GI and pancreatic procedures.
That breadth of experience—and knowledge—is what sets the NCH Complex GI team apart from the rest. And it is what helped Ann beat a grim diagnosis.
"There are certain surgeries, like the Whipple procedure that I performed on Ann, for which it's important to seek out a doctor who performs the procedure frequently—and at a high volume," Dr. Bilimoria says. "This is not the type of surgery that should be done by a surgeon who only performs one or two procedures per year. At NCH, we perform as many as five per week." Dr. Bilimoria has performed this very complex surgery on more than 700 patients, making him one of the most skilled surgeons in the nation at this operation.
Almost right away, stents—flexible tubes to expand passageways—were placed in her pancreatic ducts. Ann was put on intravenous feeding to build her strength. And in August 2010, Dr. Bilimoria used the Whipple procedure to successfully remove the mass and then performed a portal vein reconstruction.
One year after undergoing the complex procedure, Ann is still at a loss for words when it comes to expressing her gratitude to the doctors and nurses who worked so hard to help her get back to living a full life.
"We're just happy that the small amount of pancreas that was left behind [after surgery] is functioning well. There's no pain and she's back enjoying her life," Dr. Bilimoria says.
It was 14 months before Ann met the experts at NCH. But thanks to their unrivaled expertise that ultimately saved her life, it turned out to be a journey well worth taking.
To read other patient success stories, click here.