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Why your doctor may delay diagnosing your baby’s Pyloric Stenosis

A member / friend in Facebook’s Pyloric Stenosis (“PS”) network messaged me:

After having a baby with PS I find it very difficult to understand why it takes so long for the doctors or specialist to diagnose it.  Just like to know your thoughts.  We were obviously extremely lucky.

Several other common problems around infant PS were raised and we’ll seek to address each of these in the following posts.

If like this parent your baby’s (or your) PS was recognised and treated promptly without ongoing problems, you are indeed lucky and will feel very grateful to all concerned.

parent painBut if you or your parents suffered to the extent of being traumatised by PS, you join a sizeable club!  Social forum sites such as BabyCenter (or –Centre), Facebook, MedHelp, Patient and Topix have allowed many thousands of parents and PSers to voice their unhappy experience of medical matters related to PS.

Well may we all wonder about the actual number of people with the problems on this parent’s mind.  For readers who are wondering, What are the problems? please read on…

Sadly not a few doctors (notably GPs and paediatricians) are arrogant and dismissive.
Parents who have done some solid homework on PS may be brushed off, those who have had a personal experience or previous baby with PS may be ignored, mothers who have nursed several earlier children are told their feeding technique is the problem, and first-time mothers with multiple PS cases in their family are told they are “nervous nellies”.

Despite key symptoms that seem to clearly confirm a PS diagnosis, doctors may well delay diagnosis, referral, and even ordering tests.  Rather they will “watch and wait” or prescribe medication and tell the parents to “come back after a week if symptoms persist”.  This sometimes continues for several weeks (yes!).

My evaluation?

  1. PS occurs in between 2 and 5 babies in every 1,000, so the several thousand stories I have read on the various online social media pages over more than 20 years are nevertheless a tiny proportion of the whole picture.  On the other hand, for every story that gets to (say) Facebook there would be several that don’t.
    A recent Danish study is the only large one I know of that’s been done to chart problems around PS, but this study only dealt with risk factors (“etiology”) and several elements narrowly related to the surgery (“morbidity”).
    I am so annoyed that nobody seems interested in doing a substantial professional study on many more of the questions involved with PS.  I’d so much like to run something with the Facebook network of several thousands but (a) it would be well-nigh impossible for a lay person to get enough participants, and (b) the results would not be statistically representative.  For useful data we’d have to have access to a less “slanted” sample based on hospital records – and then on that basis get enough participants.
  2. PS can develop very rapidly or very slowly, and some sometimes too mildly for surgery.  Many of the accounts on Facebook tell us of the operation occurring 4-6 weeks after the first signs of PS in a newborn, and that the baby was losing condition only in the last few weeks.  Others like me were diagnosed and sent to surgeon within days of birth.  Others again are diagnosed only at a dangerously late stage and after weeks of being fobbed off by medical professionals.
  3. arrogant doc5Doctors are increasingly trained in “the scientific method”.  This means that as a doctor you’ll ignore “circumstantial evidence” (like what people say and what you yourself can observe) and use only the evidence of imaging and blood tests.  And you delay serious consideration and diagnostic tests until you decide that running these tests justifies the cost, and then you wait for results.  I had my op in 1945, “the good old days” when (judging by the medical articles of the 1920s to 70s) the medical community usually and quite effectively went (a) by the physical signs which the parents gave the doctor and (b) what the doctor could observe: no soiled nappies, non-bilious projectile vomits, peristalsis, loss of weight and condition, dehydration, and “the pyloric olive”.
    Because of this trend towards being pedantically “scientific”, the cost factor, and the fear of complications and litigation, many doctors today try to avoid the op until it’s absolutely unavoidable.  The unstated attitude seems to be, “If the delayed diagnosis damages the infant, that won’t likely be evident for many years, by which time a link with the delay will be impossible to prove”.
  4. There are several organic (or organ-formation) bowel conditions of infancy that can at first be confused with PS.  This is especially so if the PS develops slowly and not many of the key signs of it have developed yet.  And then of course there are the more common non-organ-formation problems such as infection, reflux or GERD, and faulty feeding techniques.  Again, if the signs of PS are there, any delay could be damaging to the child and prolong the baby’s and the parents’ pain.
    And again: some PS never develops beyond a level mild enough to be treated with medicines, whether or not such treatment is effective in the long term.
  5. Sad to say (and judging by the evaluations by countless parents from all over the world) there must be far too many doctors who have a “god complex”.  This shows in their attitude to what the parents (and especially the mothers) report, even when they have done their homework and/or know their own and often their family history includes PS.
    Even worse, doctor friends have confirmed this to me, including one horrified parishioner who told me that on the first day of Med School (UNSW) his class was told that they now belonged to the upwardly mobile and indeed the elite of society.

Is it unreasonable to believe that much of the deep frustration and even trauma reported on Facebook is quite avoidable?  Of course not!

Mum w babeHow do troubled parents deal with this kind of situation?

  • Do your homework: google for the symptoms of PS and record the obviously significant things about your child: daily weight, input and output, indicative events, and general appearance and alertness.
  • Don’t consult your doctor alone: take your spouse, partner or other relative or friend for support, to convey your seriousness, and to remember and record what is said and done.
  • Don’t go with a preconceived idea of what you want, but don’t be snowed either.
  • Get a second opinion if necessary.
  • Go to the ER of the nearest children’s or general hospital if dissatisfied and if necessary don’t leave there until you sense it is right.

Always remember, you are your infant child’s only and best advocate.

Their future wellbeing may well be at stake.

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Why your doctor may delay diagnosing Pyloric Stenosis

A member / friend in Facebook’s Pyloric Stenosis (“PS”) network messaged me:

After having a baby with PS I find it very difficult to understand why it takes so long for the doctors or specialist to diagnose it.  Just like to know your thoughts.  We were obviously extremely lucky.

Several other common problems around infant PS were raised and we’ll seek to address each of these in the following posts.

If like this parent your baby’s (or your) PS was recognised and treated promptly without ongoing problems, you are indeed lucky and will feel very grateful to all concerned.

M820/0092But if you or your parents suffered to the extent of being traumatised by PS, you join a sizeable club!  Social forum sites such as Facebook, BabyCenter (or –Centre), MedHelp, and Topix have allowed many thousands of parents and PSers to voice their unhappy experience of medical matters related to PS.

Well may we all wonder about the actual number of people with the problems on this parent’s mind.  For readers who are wondering, What are the problems? please read on… Continue reading

Pyloric stenosis: treasure and then trauma

How could the birth of a new life, the time of life’s greatest possible personal triumph, also come to be remembered as the greatest trauma that the same person has ever endured?

baby worriesThe birth and unexpected death of a child must surely be the most poignant possible example of that.

A close second must be the birth of a child who is damaged or imperfect in some other way. But it is surely beyond belief that the tragedy of finding that this brand new gift is damaged is sometimes made unimaginably deeper when the people we look to for advice and help are unsympathetic and dismissive of our concern and pain.

Surviving infant surgery (the theme of this blog) sometimes means for new parents, “surviving the hard and closed minds of the medical world”.

There are several Facebook Groups that offer support to those affected by infant surgery, especially infant pyloric stenosis.  PS is the condition responsible for the highest number of life-saving surgeries (operations) on babies. The great majority of “threads” (complaints, discussions and advice) on these Facebook sites relate to the unnecessarily long weeks before diagnosis, and to being treated very poorly by doctors.

Several mothers have posted about their unexpected and deeply frustrating experiences on their blog.  Jenn Cahill is a British mother whose traumatic experience in getting recognition and treatment for her son’s PS helped her to start blogging about this and other challenges of pregnancy and new motherhood.

girl-w-laptop01In a recent post, Pyloric stenosis, Jenn put on record her mother’s battle to have her (Jenn’s) PS taken seriously back in 1993, only to happen again a generation later!  Jenn post chronicles the almost unbelievable story of her 2-3 week struggle in 2015 with dismissive medical staff before her son’s PS was taken seriously; by then his vital signs had deteriorated to the extent that it took several days to resuscitate him enough to withstand a relatively simple surgical procedure.

At the same time as she posted her story (early February 2016), Jenn participated in a spirited discussion of this issue on Facebook’s Pyloric Stenosis Support Group.  (Note: this is one of several “closed Groups” dealing with issues around PS, “closed” meaning that Facebook subscribers can find each Group but not read and add their own material unless they join that Group.)

Here is the opening story to a P S Support Group thread – from a US mother, posted on 29 January 2016 –

Hello all, my son and I were struggling with feeding issues/lack of supply, so I had him checked for tongue tie.  As it turned out, he did have posterior tongue tie, and he had his frenulum snipped at 2 weeks.  His first feeding afterward, he threw up a large volume within minutes of each other.  I called our ped in a panic and was told he overfed as he was finally able to suck effectively.
This began 7 weeks of misdiagnosis hell.  He continued to throw up 1-5 times a day.  Our ped diagnosed him with reflux.  We tried different formulas, and he was put on prevacid.  His vomiting wasn’t projectile, but forceful and huge in volume.  The worst was when he was on enfamil AR – the formula was so thick that it was extremely difficult and painful when he vomited.  I was so scared watching him during these episodes.  We were at the ped nearly every day, getting nowhere.
Vomiting continued, and he was barely gaining weight.  We went to a GI specialist at 4.5 weeks.  At our first appointment, I asked if he could have PS and if we should do an ultrasound.  My concerns were brushed off.  The specialist diagnosed him with a milk protein allergy in addition to reflux – told me this was all normal baby stuff.  My son’s health continued to decline.  For an entire MONTH, we saw this doctor.  I asked at every appointment if he had PS, shouldn’t we do an ultrasound.  I was refused every time.  Finally, at our last appointment I demanded one, which confirmed my son DID IN FACT have a severe case of PS.  She fought his diagnosis all day, ordering the barium swallow test and ANOTHER ultrasound.  Both of which confirmed PS.  He had surgery the next day, after being hooked up to iv’s for 24 hours as he was extremely dehydrated.
He is now 7 months, thriving, healthy, so happy and sweet.  Yet, I can’t get over what we went through.  I can’t forget the pain and stress of it all… can’t stop punishing myself with the what ifs.  I thought I was progressing, but today I had to write a letter of hardship as we’re applying for financial assistance with his many overwhelming medical bills.  I had a total meltdown reliving that time.
Sorry for the long post.  Just looking for support from PS parents.  He is my first baby.

In a later frustrated response –

Made me question my instincts over and over.  Made me feel like an utter failure as a mother.  All the while my son’s health deteriorated with no end in sight.  I’m so glad I finally demanded that ultrasound that day… I can’t imagine how much longer he would have suffered or what would have happened to him.

Another new mother added –

Funny you should post this as I’m up at 3 am reliving our 9 weeks of hell with exactly the same story as yours.  The guilt and anger consume me at these times of night so I decided tonight that I am over the weekend going to make a formal complaint to the hospital as I want to ensure an investigation takes place so it doesn’t happen to someone else as new parents with a very ill newborn.
All I think we can do is console ourselves that we trusted our instincts eventually and we put our trust in the professionals which we should, but unfortunately their duty of care was sub-standard.
I’m glad your little one is now thriving, my little boy is also 7 months and doing really well but it has traumatised me and although it’s faded and I’m sure will more with time, I think these experiences will last with us for a long time.

And another mother wrote –

Thank you for reaching out to me – I’m sorry you also went through this.  It’s so awful.  I swear, I have PTSD.  I suffered major anxiety/panic attacks the first month or so afterward.  I felt okay for a bit, like I’d processed things and then out of nowhere, I’ll have a bad day like today.  It’s also hard not to worry that every little thing is a result of the many weeks of unnecessary vomiting or fear for future health issues.  I filed a complaint against the doctors with the Medical Board… who knows if they will be reprimanded, but at least I tried.  And, wrote scathing yelp and google reviews.  It’s sickening how negligent medical care can be.
Can we keep in touch if we ever need to talk or are having a rough day?  I don’t feel like any family or friends can truly grasp how I feel or what we went through.  The worst is the “just be thankful he’s healthy and thriving now.”  As if I’m not or I don’t know that…

And she added –

Ugh, don’t get me started on insurance.  I feel I’ve wasted half my son’s life on the phone dealing with them.  Pretty much every single nap until the last couple weeks.

And another mother’s story in brief –

My story is exactly the same as yours except I was told reflux by 8 different doctors.  And just treated like an “over anxious new mum”, told to go get some rest!  Had to film my baby having a seizure which he would have every night from the pain and the choking before I could get just one doctor to listen!  I’m still so angry.

There were many more contributions than those included here.  I end this selection with another of Jenn Cahill’s responses –

Had exactly the same story as you with the main difference being I had PS as a newborn!!!  And they still refused to diagnose him despite it being a much stronger risk if your mother has previously had it.  Absolutely ridiculous.
I struggle to have faith in Doctors now as I think they’re trying to just brush me off as a silly mother as they did when he was tiny.
He’s 6 months now and yet I still panic if he throws up a large amount.  And I’m terrified for the future as we are planning a second and I’m so scared we are going to go through it all again.

It needs to be added here that –

  • Scared_Doctordoctors are known to be busy and work long hours, usually covering a wide range of health issues: hardly a situation conducive to a sensitive listening ear;
  • many infant conditions are no doubt recognised quickly and dealt with well;
  • several of the symptoms of PS are not unique to this condition, nor does PS always present the same way:  correct diagnosis is of course essential and often takes some time; and
  • despite doctors being as imperfect as ourselves, the death rate from infant PS has fallen from the majority a century ago to very low today (less than 1%).

Nevertheless, the medical world has some well-recognised problems, including some practitioners having a serious attitude problem and the number and nature of complaints about the way people are dealt with at what should be one of the most beautifully memorable times of their lives.

Aware parenting after infant surgery

At the age of just 3 years, children learn to use the word “Why?”

We humans are incurably curious, we want to understand what we see and hear.

Read this recent social media post by the mother of a pyloric stenosis child –

mum-dtr talk1My son was almost 9 weeks when he had his surgery.  It took them a long time to diagnose him; he will be 6 years old in a few weeks and his scar is about 3″ long.  He’s grown over the summer and has complained a lot about his tummy hurting.  That was part of the reason I joined the group so I could find out if other PS children experienced the same thing.  He also had a hernia repaired when he was 14 months old.  The scar bothers him when he gets asked what happened, but I tell him you were really sick and needed an operation to make you better.  Mommy loves your scar.  Then he smiles and laughs and forgets about the questions.

I wonder, what is your response to this post?  “What a lovely Mommy”?  “How nice”?

This was my response to this mother –

That interaction between you and your son reminds me so much of when I was his age!

My mother and I would have times like that, and my mum would use those exact same words.  But I never could never smile and forget to ask any more questions.  And when I asked more questions, the response was always, “We’ll talk about that sometime later” – but we never did.

150414-085And so from age 5 I increasingly felt embarrassed about the scar running down the middle of my belly, and whenever I asked the questions I had I felt fobbed off by pleasantries.  This deepened a then already real phobia that would trouble me for many years.

Today we know so much more and so I’m sure you’ll be sensitive to your son’s deeper personal feelings and be able to help him.  I still wish now that my mum (long passed on) had taken the initiative several times over my growing years –
1) showing she recognised my struggle instead of telling me off for showing any sign of it,
2) telling me about her part in and feelings about my first op in detail,
3) answering any questions I still had, and
4) discussing with me how I could work on my phobia.

Your son may grow up being very different from me, of course, but believe me, I’m far from alone in what I’ve just posted here!

Infant surgery then and now

Infant surgery has seriously affected some of us whose lives were saved by it.

This is especially true of those like me who are now at the older end of life: we have been affected emotionally and psychologically despite having no conscious memories of the surgery we had so early in our lives.  Our bodies record potent trauma even when our mind cannot.  This does not seem to affect everybody but others’ stories and tell-tale signs are too similar to reject as fiction.

Surgery in the past was rather basic, especially when performed on infants and in the light of current practice. Often in the not-too-distant past no safe general anesthetic and trained pediatric (children’s) anesthetist were available: general anesthetic agents were hazardous for infants in their first two years unless a very careful and experienced anesthetist was available.

Local anesthesia affects the tissue at the operative site, making it hard to work on, so many surgeons would also exclude its use.  So the squirming baby was strapped down, and quite often given a shot of whisky or a sugar cube laced with rum to somewhat distract it.  Or a paralysing drug was injected and a breathing tube inserted.  No picnic for the baby, and it must have been tough on the operating room staff.

The hospital regime then was also “different”.  Two weeks or more in hospital was standard after an “uneventful” pyloric stenosis (“PS”) operation, and often the mother was allowed no contact for fear of infection, which still killed about 50% of PS babies post-op in UK public hospitals after WW2.  I understand my mother had to deliver breast milk daily over 15 km to the hospital for 2 weeks but was never allowed near me, let alone nurse me.  (My surgery was at 10 days so what an introduction to nursing her first baby I was for her…)

Starvation pre-op plus surgical shock plus maternal deprivation – none of it remembered of course, but it has really affected me and others of that generation long term.  Add to that: some years later, these baby-boomer and earlier parents were totally unaware and incapable of managing their own and their growing child’s developing ptsd.

Woodstock-1But hey!  Ever since Dr Conrad Ramstedt and others began publicising their newly discovered “pyloromyotomy procedure”, most of us PS babies no longer died of dehydration and starvation.  Even those who had the PS op in its early days have mostly lived to tell their tales and have often lived well.

But I am also very thankful that despite the many post-op issues reported on Facebook and other form sites, some of the old damage is no longer being inflicted today.  Infant surgery today, even in its most severe forms, is now far less traumatic for all concerned, and most hospital regimes are sensitive and aware.

Pyloric stenosis diagnosis – continuing grief

Infants who need life-saving surgery understandably cause their parents enormous anxiety.  This will of course affect all those among whom they move at a stressful time like this: doctors and nurses, E D staff, their other children, and their extended family and even close friends.

It is sad but true that the great majority of parents who post online about their infant’s surgery for pyloric stenosis (“PS”) mention at least two things –

  1. baby worriesThe diagnosis of their baby’s condition was for them a distressingly demeaning and unnecessarily extended process, not only because of the general medical practitioner(s) involved but also due to pediatric specialists and emergency department staff.  The other almost universal complaint is that
  2. this time was the most traumatic event they had ever had to endure.

This situation continues to amaze and infuriate me.

  • PS is by no means rare.
  • It occurs in between 2 and 5 babies in every 1,000 live births (in developed countries).
  • The symptoms are almost always quite clearly recognizable by the time parents seek medical help.
  • Quite often nowadays parents have done some homework and what they report about their baby can easily be verified.
  • In most cases PS can be quite quickly and accurately diagnosed starting with the classical, observable signs that have been used for a century, and without the need for lab work and imaging.

I urge our readers who work (or may work) with sick babies and their parents to read the two articles to which I have provided links.

Doctor-arrogant3One is a news item from an English newspaper which tells the story of a child with many problems, most of them rare and complex.  It is amazing that despite clear symptoms, her PS was not discovered for 18 months!  The PS cannot have been life threatening, it would have been masked by the child’s other maladies, but once again, clearly identifiable symptoms seem to have been missed for a long, long time!

The other link is to a lengthy letter from the parents of three children, each with serious medical conditions, including one with PS.  This very articulate letter addresses the substantial underlying reason for the problem I raise again in this post.

The problem is not that many doctors lack an encyclopedic knowledge of the huge list of medical conditions and their variable symptoms.  Nor is the real issue that not every medical practitioner has a special knack of diagnosing the reason for a health complaint.

not-listeningThe problem is attitude.  Unwillingness to listen.  Lack of goodwill towards, patience with and respect for patients.  Not only that, but all too often a doctor’s attitudes deeply offend and distress the parents of a very sick infant: a superior, patronising, often denigrating and dismissive manner.

The letter mentioned above expresses well the recognition that many doctors do their work with skill, sensitivity and kindness.  It also conveys that parents and their little patients are (later) deeply grateful for the restoration of normal life and health.

But why do so many of the most vulnerable and anxious “consumers” of health care keep expressing outrage and pleading for much better care from medical professionals?

The present situation must be urgently addressed by medical schools’ selection, shaping and training of their students, and also by the relevant professional bodies, and by far more effective mutual accountability and quality assurance policies and programs.

Most of us can only describe the problem and plead and challenge the medical community to work towards improvement…

Is anybody listening?

Pyloric stenosis: dealing with doctors who delay

Doctors working in a hospital or private practice should be aware of the symptoms and other characteristics of infant pyloric stenosis (“PS”).

M820/0092Sadly, many are not.  Just go online and read the horrible stories of hundreds of new parents.  Forum sites like Facebook and BabyCentre (in North America, BabyCenter) include a sorry litany of lamentations and “lip” about ignorant doctors, simplistic notions about the causes of a blocked stomach in a baby, and lack of knowledge of the basic signs of PS, not to mention the autocratic attitude of many of these doctors, all delaying a prompt and life-saving diagnosis and treatment process even further.

Yet PS is the most common reason for infant surgery that is “non-elective” – in other words, unavoidable to save a baby’s life.  And if PS is discovered soon enough and the baby is older than one month, non-surgical treatment is an option (although not often considered) that may save a mountain of trouble in later life.

Parents deserve much better than a medical professional roadblocking diagnosis and treatment: an uncontrollably sick newborn is stressful enough without being repeatedly fobbed off or put down by your doctor.

My holiday reading this month (in a balmy Aussie summer) turned up two telling internet articles that link with the above.

The first was from a British doctor who reflected on the challenges of working in a hospital emergency department (“ED”, or accident and emergency section).  He complains about the impossible hours these doctors work, to us “ordinary people” an unfathomable mystery that has been widely known for many years – and still seems to be beyond the combined skills of the most intelligent, educated and prestigious members of our community to address.

Scared_DoctorWhat this doctor also detailed was that so often ED doctors and staff have to work with the saddest and most damaged and dysfunctional people in our cities and towns: substance abusers, people without the ability or willingness to treat others with kindness and respect, and of course, the many people who have suffered the consequences of these ugly symptoms of a broken world.

Reading this doctor’s account brought home to me (yet again) that there is another side to the litany of parent complaints I mentioned above: many doctors are stressed out by Western society’s unwillingness to pay ever more for health care, by their profession’s inability to address the totally unreasonable workload of “juniors”, and by the continuing and deepening breakdown of society.

The parents of a sick baby are often the “collateral damage” of this.  Little do most of us know or care what may cause a doctor to be aloof, dismissive, or arrogant?  The parents themselves are usually too tense and preoccupied with their sick baby to consider “the big picture”.

What can the parents of a sick child do when they are faced with a doctor who upsets them even further?  Here are some suggestions:

  1. blog-writing1Make notes of your baby’s story: keep a full and detailed record of its weight, feeding intake and times, its output (both top and bottom), its general wellness and appearance, and anything else you notice.  This will enable you to give the doctor or ED staff clear facts.  It’s much harder to brush these aside.
  2. Do your homework and learn what you can from books and/or the web about your baby’s symptoms.  Stomach or feeding problems can be caused by quite a list of different medical problem conditions, and each comes with different symptoms and needs different tests to help guide diagnosis.  Many doctors will not spend precious time or order costly tests to search for or nail down a diagnosis unless there are already clear signs pointing to it, or (and this is sad but understandable) unless it becomes clear that the baby’s life is in danger (e. g. as shown by steady weight loss or dehydration).
    Sadly, if this happens, the baby may already have suffered effects on its brain development.  Parents should do what they can to make it easy for their doctor to steer a diagnosis in the right direction.
  3. writer-thumbA doctor is trained and likes to work as a scientist: they have to gather the evidence and work methodically towards a conclusion.  This means eliminating possible causes.  Allow the doctor to be the scientist and stay in the driver’s seat.  Hold yourself back from telling the doctor what you think or have already decided what the problem is, but be informed and alert enough not to let the doctor fob you off or delay a decision if the symptoms you have listed clearly point to a particular problem.
    The need for all this advice is abundantly clear.  there are countless reports of doctors ruling out PS “because your baby is a girl” or “because your baby is not your first-born”.  Other common reports are of doctors refusing to even consider testing for PS even though there are clear symptoms and one (or even both) parents had it and the condition is common among the baby’s relatives!
  4. Patient & doctor03Be firm and insistent about what you expect but stay calm, respectful and reasonable – hard as this may sometimes be.  Most of us do not handle hostility, abuse, and unreasonableness well!  Doctors are no exception.  Mind you, it seems that not a few doctors invite anger and harsh language by their lack of medical competence and/or people skills.
    If you know you risk “losing it” in some way or other over a sick infant, it would be wise to take a close, supportive and mature family member or friend along.  Some people I have advised online have (I believe) not helped their baby’s cause by their own behaviour.

My next post will look at the second article – about the selection and training of doctors.