After a Lifelong Search, Gastroparesis Patient Finds Hope

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Within minutes of their first meeting, Caitlin Houghton, M.D., said the words that Brittney Pisanelli, 33, had been hoping to hear for most of her life: “You have options.”

“I started crying in her office,” Brittney said. “I had never been told that before. Someone wanted to help me. Someone wanted to help me function and live life. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

Brittney has gastroparesis, a condition which prevents her stomach from properly emptying. Like many patients with this condition, Brittney had been misdiagnosed for years, bouncing around hospitals throughout the country, while her conditioned worsened and she continued to suffer.

She vomited blood but was told by a doctor in one state that she had irritable bowel syndrome. She could not keep down solid food but was told by a doctor in another state that she had lupus. Meanwhile, food clusters in Brittney’s stomach acted like ulcers, causing immeasurable pain and threatened to dislodge and travel to her lungs.

After living in and out of hospitals for five years, doctors outside of Orange County finally performed the necessary test to properly diagnose her. Even then, Brittney spent another two years unable to find the help she needed. Her condition got so bad that water made her sick. She started losing hair and she shed 100 pounds.

Brittney sought treatment from a nationally recognized medical center on the East Coast but was turned away by a renowned physician who told her that her case was too complicated.

“They gave up on me. One doctor had worked in the field for 40 years and said he had never given up on a patient, but he had to give up on me,” she said. “There were dark moments and depression, but I didn’t want to give up.”

As she continued to search for answers, Brittney moved to Orange County from Temecula. Here, she discovered the Hoag Digestive Health Institute and met gastrointestinal surgeon Dr. Houghton.

“I just remember her compassion,” Brittney said. “I could see that she wanted to do everything to help me. That was the first time I’d ever seen that.”

In addition to her compassion, Brittney was impressed with Dr. Houghton’s expertise. A skilled robotic-assisted laparoscopic surgeon, Dr. Houghton is one of the few specialists who offers Enterra therapy, an implantable medical device that regulates nausea and vomiting.

The FDA-approved neurostimulator produces small electrical pulses, which are sent through insulated wires to the lower section of the stomach. Dr. Houghton is able to adjust stimulation settings to tailor to Brittney’s individual condition as it evolves.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for gastroparesis. While the device is blocking her nausea and restoring her quality of life, the condition has started to paralyze her colon. Brittney knows she will have to address the issue if it becomes worse. But at least she now has a knowledgeable and caring team on her side.

The level of innovation and ingenuity impressed Brittney, who lost her mother to stomach cancer six years ago.

“I had never heard of a digestive center like the one at Hoag. When my mom had stomach cancer, she didn’t have anything like that,” she said. “It is so neat that they are focused on the digestive system and are super knowledgeable about diseases that most people haven’t heard of. My main goal now is to get the word out to other people who may be struggling. If you keep searching and advocating for yourself, there is light at the end of the tunnel.”

Shortly after the surgery, Brittney did something she hadn’t done in years: she met a friend for dinner.

“It was so exciting. We take the smallest things for granted, but the fact that I’m able to live and do these small things is the biggest change,” she said.

“The whole Digestive Health Institute team is so welcoming and so kind. They take amazing care of me. Hoag is the only hospital I will go to now,” she said. “I’m finally understood and getting answers. I know there is no cure, but the fact that someone is knowledgeable and can understand means more than a cure. It gives me hope.

“My body may be broken, but my spirit is not.”