Anna Brawner’s happy smile and apparent good health belie two years of suffering mysterious and excruciating pain. Recently recovered from surgery, Brawner calls Presbyterian St. Luke’s Medical Center surgeon, Anthony Canfield, M.D., her hero.
Canfield performed minimally invasive robotic surgery March 20th to relieve symptoms accompanying intestinal malrotation: The 30-year-old woman’s internal organs were reversed and fibrous bands were squeezing them, particularly her intestines. The condition occurs almost exclusively in babies, and if uncorrected can be fatal. It’s exceptionally rare in adults, especially undetected and asymptomatic.
“I was having difficulty digesting food and either was throwing up or feeling like I had knives inside every time I ate.” She’d experienced pain for a few weeks but thought the cause was job-related stress. A CT scan in the ER didn’t identify why she had pain and nausea. “That began a wild goose chase with doctor after doctor and tests and procedures. They couldn’t find anything.
“I went straight from the ER to having a team of specialists,” Brawner says. She continued having pain and weight loss. Her gallbladder was tested and showed signs of failure. The doctors were concerned about the reversed organ position and the way her intestines were knotted up. “But they couldn’t figure out why it would have taken so long to present a problem.”
Brawner’s online research revealed that doctors perform an emergency Ladd’s procedure (named for its discoverer) on babies to remove constricting bands. But her doctors wouldn’t consider it. They performed gallbladder surgery and an appendectomy, but her symptoms returned. A new gastroenterologist thought the cause was allergies. “He put me on a diet – no gluten, dairy, soy, meat, legumes – everything except chicken and rice,” Brawner says.
Her medical problems compounded with a broken leg and a spot on her arm that turned out to be melanoma. “I had 12 doctors and was overwhelmed,” Brawner recalls.
A friend at Rocky Vista University College of Osteopathic Medicine told a doctor there about Brawner. That doctor had heard Canfield speak and was impressed. She talked to him and forwarded Brawner’s all-negative allergy tests and blood work.
“That was a game changer,” Brawner says. “He called right away.” She’d waited weeks to see other doctors, but Canfield scheduled an appointment the next day. “He was willing to give me some hope.” Canfield drew pictures of what he thought was happening and explained he was 99 percent sure the bands were there, even though they couldn’t be seen on imaging.
Less than three weeks later, using Presbyterian/St. Luke’s daVinci Xi surgical robot, “Dr. Canfield released the first band and my intestines started to do a little ‘freedom dance,’” Brawner laughs. They’d been completely constricted. “He wanted to know how I had made it 28 years.”
Brawner says she had only three tiny incisions and very little post-surgical pain. One week later, “I was able to eat everything. No nausea and no symptoms. He fixed me. Everything that took over my life – it’s finally over.”