Sandra Hanson of Okatie, South Carolina, spent her career advocating for the health of others. Before relocating to the Low Country, she was the director of Case Western Reserve University’s Center on Aging and Health in Cleveland. In 2011, she realized it was time to make her own health a priority.
For years, Hanson had lived with a hiatal hernia, a condition in which part of the stomach protrudes into the chest cavity. She also had severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). The muscles in her lower esophagus wouldn’t close properly. As a result, Hanson experienced painful acid reflux as stomach juices and foods backed up into her esophagus when she ate. The reflux damaged the lining of her esophagus and caused another condition called Barrett’s esophagus.
Hanson and her physician monitored the condition regularly. Every two years, she underwent an endoscopy procedure to check the location of the hernia. In 2011, it moved higher into her chest, creating more discomfort.
“I had very bad acid reflux and I could tell that something in my stomach was not quite right. I felt quite bloated, even after eating small amounts. Sometimes, I would turn a certain way and it would really hurt,” said Hanson.
The condition became more uncomfortable as time went on. Hanson worried about being able to take care of herself and her miniature schnauzer, Petey. Her physician referred her to Christopher Senkowski, M.D., a minimally invasive surgeon at Memorial University Medical Center.
“Dr. Senkowski was great. He was very patient with me. He drew pictures to explain exactly what he thought should be done. He showed me what my stomach looked like and told me what to expect from surgery,” said Hanson.
On April 22, 2011, Hanson underwent a surgical procedure called laparoscopic Nissen fundoplication. Senkowski made five small incisions, each less than one inch in length, in Hanson’s abdomen. Using a tiny camera and surgical tools, he wrapped the upper part of Hanson’s stomach around her esophagus and stitched it into place. This would ensure that her esophagus closed properly to keep food and stomach acids in the stomach. He also narrowed the opening in Hanson’s diaphragm to prevent the hiatal hernia from moving into her chest.
After the surgery, Hanson says she felt very little discomfort. Her acid reflux was immediately gone, and she was able to stop taking her reflux medication.
“I was very pleased with my whole experience at Memorial. Dr. Senkowski was wonderful. The nurses were outstanding. Even the kitchen staff was great. They would contact me to see what I wanted for my meals. It was almost like staying in a hotel,” said Hanson.
She left the hospital with instructions to follow a strict liquid diet for six weeks.
For the first two weeks after surgery, Hanson’s neighbors had to walk Petey for her. She was able to drive after she stopped taking her pain medication, which she only needed for three days after returning home. But by week three, Hanson was able to care for Petey on her own and return to her normal activities. She says the most difficult part was being restricted to liquids and soft or smooth foods for six weeks. Nonetheless, within a month, she was walking nearly four miles a day and was able to travel out of town for a getaway.
Under her doctor’s supervision, Hanson gradually added solid foods back into her diet. Today, she has a new and improved quality of life. She can eat without pain and maintain the active lifestyle she enjoys.