Sunday, June 7, 2009

Recent Misadventures, Part I

I think the last time I posted a legitimate update I wrote about "oh crap, I need an angiogram." I was scheduled for May 22 and was not looking forward to it, only it didn't happen that day...

Okay, let me start from the beginning, and 'splain what it is that the portal vein does. Apologies for my tenuous grasp on anatomy... but if you want totally specific information you'll have to do your research.

ANYWAY, it's a little-known fact that the liver exists almost entirely on dirty blood. That is, about 80% of the liver's blood supply comes from the stomach and the small intestine, after those two organs have done their peristaltic and enzymatic magic and imbued the blood with all sorts of raw materials for living. The liver then takes that dirty blood and not only takes care of itself but also takes those materials and refines them into useable stuff for the body -- proteins, sugars -- and processes out the waste matter. This chemical cooker also creates heat and energy for the body to use.

Well, that 80% of the blood travels through one key vessel: the portal vein. This vein is about 8 centimeters long and one centimeter in diameter and is located roughly at the level of the bottom of a bra strap (only on the other side of the spinal column). It consists of the junction of two major veins which in turn drain all of the abdominal organs. The lienal vein brings in blood from the stomach, pancreas, and the descending and lower parts of the intestinal system via the spleen -- if I had a spleen -- but those have been rerouted for the direct connection. The mesenteric vein, roughly to the left/lower portion of the whole intersection, brings in blood from the middle parts of the digestive system, all the ascending and transverse parts, and parts of the stomach.

So it's kind of a big deal.

When I got my new liver, my old vein was hooked to the new vein at about the 4-centimeter mark. There was a blood clot there that took some time to remove in surgery, and then there were sutures there (are they called sutures when they're inside?) to connect my old portal vein to the new one. The two were/are probably close to the same size, but since the portal vein is often messy when there's been long-term cirrhosis, the old and new ends may have been different.

Portal vein hypertension -- that is, too much blood pressure in the portal vein -- is also a big deal. It's one of the effects/indicators of liver disease. Basically that portal vein gets blocked, scarred, or otherwise mucked up so that the blood cannot get into the liver. Therefore it tends to back up... and then take the path of least resistance. Blood that backs up into the vein through the stomach pushes its way out through the capillaries in the stomach or esophogus walls, causing varices. Those are varicose veins in the stomach/esophogeal lining which can burst without notice and cause a person to bleed to death. I had been taking blood pressure meds to prevent such bleeds for about the last 5 years. Portal vein hypertension can also cause bleeding in other parts of the intestinal tract, can render the body inable to rid itself of fluids (resulting in the round, hard stomach), and can cause a pattern of varicose veins on the lower abdomen. I have had the pleasure of experiencing all of the above (not so bad with the abdomen veins, though).

So when I had the routine ultrasound to look at blood flow in my liver, and the follow-up CT, both of which showed that the portal vein was narrowed, it needed to be fixed. As Dr. H said it: 'we expect you to have this liver for a long time and we want it to function perfectly' and thus I was scheduled to meet with Dr. V, the Inteventional Radiologist, for the angiogram...

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