An Open Letter to All Colorectal Surgeons

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To Whom it May Concern (Are you a colorectal surgeon? You should be concerned):

A while ago I was talking with a close friend (I’ll call her Allie) about her latest experience seeing one of the best colorectal surgeons in the country. Allie’s fistula struggle had been a long one, and was complicated by Crohn’s disease. Her quality of life had been so low that year that she finally decided it was worth it to brave the trip to get the opinion of one of the best.

This surgeon gave her good advice, and did a thorough examination, but what they said to my friend has lingered in my brain for over a year now. They told her about a patient of theirs who had a bunch of kids and over ten setons. They told my friend about how active, productive, and awesome this patient was.

Let me explain how problematic this kind of anecdotal story is. Imagine living with multiple bands hanging out of your ass, all kinds of leakage (hours spent keeping things clean), all of the complications that come with Crohn’s disease, and being in constant pain. Imagine these conditions completely changing your entire life–having to quit a career you loved, being unable to do the things you used to enjoy, coping with the deep depression that comes with being in constant pain…

Now imagine a doctor telling you about a superstar woman, living with similar issues, but just rocking life anyway. Imagine comparing yourself to this mythological creature who has kids and a job, yet somehow has energy to go jogging with her bajillion setons just gently swishing along.

Whatever the intentions of the surgeon telling this story, the result is leaving the patient feeling like, “Oh. Great. So I’m just not trying hard enough. What’s wrong with me? Why can this woman be a superstar, but I am a wreck?” The other consequence of telling a patient a story like that is the patient ends up feeling their doctor doesn’t believe them. If you are telling your patient a story about how amazing this patient is doing, who has been through the same kind of thing you are going through, you are also implying that you don’t particularly believe your patient is as badly off as they say they are.

I spent three years with a fistula, went through eight surgeries (not including EUAs and L&Ds), and I don’t have Crohn’s disease to contend with. I. Was. Wrecked. I lost my job, my social life, and on many days my will to go on. I have spoken to hundreds of fistula sufferers, I run an online fistula support group with thousands of members, and I can tell you that stories like the one this surgeon told my friend are rare. More often than not this condition is debilitating, messy, painful, and depressing. I can also tell you that stories like this are very common–so many fistula patients are living with not just the awful symptoms of having a fistula, but with navigating a health system filled with doctors who won’t believe them about their pain levels. This is UNACCEPTABLE.

I urge you to please BELIEVE your patients. They know more about how their bodies are feeling than you do. You would do yourself and your patients a great service by taking the small steps towards learning what your patient is actually going through, and letting them know that you believe them–believe that their pain is real. It’s not that hard, just imagine having a tunnel that’s eaten its way through important bits, and you’re leaking fecal matter into places it shouldn’t, like your vagina. That’s a good start.

And for the love of all that is holy, do NOT tell them about this one superstar patient you have. Not only is it not helpful, it’s psychologically damaging.

Regards,

Leah R. Chatterjee

(And to my dear friend “Allie,” if you are reading this, you ARE a superstar badass warrior)

Advancement Flap Surgery

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One of the most common surgeries available to close a fistula is called the advancement flap surgery. If you have a colorectal fistula, there is a good chance you will hear about this option somewhere down the line. I’ve sketched my own depiction of the surgery here:

What you are looking at is the fistula from the inside of the rectum. Simply put, the surgeon will cut a piece (or flap) of tissue near the fistula hole, and stretch it over the hole like a patch. Sutures are used to keep it in place.

Here are several questions you might want to ask your doctor before you decide to have the surgery:

1) What is the state of my tissue in that area? Is it in good shape for surgery? As we get older our tissue can weaken. If you have had multiple surgeries in that area, the tissue might not be in the best shape. Your doctor should know whether or not the tissue is good enough for a strong flap, but asking is always a good idea.

2) Am I clear of all infections? Any kind of infection can compromise healing. If you feel something might be “off,” have frequent diarrhea, or stomach cramps, ask your doctor to run some tests and stool samples. You know best what your body feels like when it’s healthy, so don’t be afraid to insist on lab work before going in for surgery.

3) What can I do after surgery to help the healing process? Ask your doctor about how to properly take your antibiotics and pain medications. Ask about what foods to eat, and what foods to avoid. It is very important to eat well after this surgery, and to be conscious of eating foods that will pass through the rectum easily.

4) How can I best manage my pain and physical discomfort after surgery? Every person is different, has different levels of pain, and different reactions to pain. This surgery can take time to recover fully from, and there will be at least a few days of serious discomfort and/or pain. It is important to prepare for this beforehand.

5) How should I keep the area clean? After surgery the area will be tender, there will be some bleeding, and keeping the area as clean as you can is important. (In this seton band article I give tips on keeping things clean)

According to most literature currently available, the advancement flap surgery has a success rate of about 70%. Many studies reported causes of failure were often due to the presence of Crohn’s Disease. I would advise that you not get too caught up in numbers. Do your research, talk to your doctor about concerns (don’t be embarrassed, colorectal surgeons have heard it ALL), and get a second opinion if necessary.

Best of luck to all of you on the fistula journey. As always, feel free to contact me with questions or comments. I will do my best to get back to you in a timely manner. Please remember that I am NOT a doctor, just someone who has lived through a 3 year fistula, and has accrued what I hope to be valuable knowledge and experience on the subject.

Leah R. Chatterjee