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The right equipment and expertise – made all the difference for Laura’s gallstones

The right equipment and expertise – made all the difference for Laura’s gallstones

Eighty-five year old Laura would develop gallstones. The gallstones would cause painful infections. Doctors would attempt to treat them, but the gallstones would return. Her family knew it was time to try something new. Her doctor suggested a place known for the latest research and procedures: the USC Digestive Health Center at Keck Medicine of USC.

The first unusual fact about Laura’s case is that she no longer had a gallbladder. That made gallstones a less obvious diagnosis.

“She was sick for a good six months, and we didn’t know why,” said her granddaughter, Charissa. “She had chills, fever and pain. I didn’t know what it was. She didn’t want to go in, but I finally called 911.”

The day after she went to the emergency room, a CAT scan revealed that gallstones were the cause. Everyone was surprised except Laura, Charissa said “She said before, ‘I think I have stones.’ Meanwhile I’m thinking – she doesn’t even have a gallbladder.”

Initially, Laura was treated with antibiotics for the infections and a special endoscopy called “ERCP” in an attempt to break up the stones. But the stones were very large, and repeated procedures couldn’t remove them. Finally, her doctor referred her to Jacques Van Dam, MD, Director of the USC Digestive Health Center.

When Dr. Van Dam arrived at USC’s Digestive Health Center in 2010, he brought with him the advanced technologies he would need to take care of patients just like Laura. “There was a three-centimeter diameter stone that had been in there for a good 30 or 40 years,” said Charissa. “We had no idea.”

Dr. Van Dam used a Holmium laser to carefully blast the stones apart. He was also able to locate the source of the problem. Laura’s bile duct wasn’t flowing freely, trapping material there that developed into stones. After removing the last of the stones, Dr. Van Dam prescribed a drug to help dissolve any new stones to lessen the chance that her body would try to make more.

And to Charissa’s relief, he reassured her it wouldn’t interfere with Laura’s other medications or cause side effects with prolonged use. “In a nutshell, if it weren’t for him, we would still be stuck with the same situation.”

From the most advanced to the simplest technology, both Laura and her granddaughter were thrilled with their experience at Keck. “(The first surgeon) didn’t have the laser to blast the stones. He had to try to break them up using more old fashioned tools. Keck had a laser. That’s a huge, huge thing.”

“Some of the technology [at Keck Medicine of USC] was the simplest things. Instead of poking her finger every time they needed to take blood, they could take it out of the I.V. It’s just the littlest things that make the experience so much better.”

That level of attention really mattered to Charissa. “My grandmother raised me, and now I’m taking care of her. So I want to make sure that I pay attention to everything.”

Keck Medicine of USC is the University of Southern California’s medical enterprise, one of only two university-owned academic medical centers in the Los Angeles area.