ECU surgeons treating rare disorder with novel surgery

Sandra Callis is one of approximately 200,000 U.S. residents living with achalasia, a rare disorder that makes it almost impossible to eat.

The grandmother from Colerain remembers doctors first told her she had acid reflux, but this was worse.

“There was no rhyme or reason. When you have reflux, people will say to just figure out what you ate before you had an attack. Mine was getting to the point where it was anything I ate,” she said. “Three bites of rice, and I’d be in the bathroom.”

Achalasia occurs when a muscle between the esophagus and stomach loses its ability to relax, making it difficult for food and liquid to pass into a person’s stomach and causing a host of health problems, including weight loss and an increased risk of esophageal cancer.

Now a team of ECU surgeons is among the first in North Carolina to perform a minimally invasive procedure – called a peroral endoscopic myotomy – that can relieve achalasia and help people get back to normal.

During the procedure, doctors insert an endoscope into the esophagus and then cut the muscle inside it that is not functioning properly, allowing food easier passage to the stomach.

Doctors first performed the POEM procedure in Japan in 2008, and it has since migrated around the world. After performing their first POEM procedure last spring, ECU surgeons have completed approximately two dozen more.

“We’re starting to see patients from other parts of the state and from other states who are now coming to ECU and Vidant (Medical Center) for this treatment,” said Dr. Carlos Anciano, an assistant professor in ECU’s thoracic surgery division.

Anciano performed Callis’ surgery Feb. 5. Two weeks later, after a post-operation liquid diet, doctors gave her the OK to try “normal” food again.

“I came home and had a cheeseburger. It took me an hour to eat it, because my stomach wasn’t used to food. But it sure was good, and I was fine. I was full,” she said. “It was nice, it felt normal. I had forgotten what normal felt like.”