Everybody loves Joe*. Joe is the life of the party. He is a big guy with a big heart and a sense of humour to match. He loves to make fun of himself, something that probably resulted from being teased as a kid. He was the biggest child in class and had his fair share of barbs in adolescence.
Joe has been married to Aggy* for seventeen years and they have one son. Complications during delivery rendered Aggy incapable of having more children. This shattered their dream of having a large family.
However, coming from a tightly-knit extended family helped. Their son grew up around his cousins, never lacking for company.
Weekend family get-togethers were a time for the children to play together, for the women to catch up and for the men to indulge in drink and sports.
Joe has always been the family guzzler, easily drinking a bottle of whiskey in a day. Everyone jokingly attributed his drinking capacity to his big size and his nephews and nieces call him Uncle Grizzly Bear.
Recently Joe and Aggy had a fright. Aggy woke up one Sunday morning and went for a jog. She came home to find her husband on the bathroom floor doubled up in intense pain.
He had woken up to go to the bathroom and keeled over in such intense pain in his abdomen, he could not move from the floor.
Aggy called an ambulance and Joe was whisked off to the emergency room.
Hours later, after the dust had settled and Joe had been admitted into the critical care unit, the doctor was able to put a name to what was ailing Joe. He had suffered an attack of acute pancreatitis.
This was a completely foreign term to Joe’s family. It was difficult to fathom how the pancreas could turn on itself and start digesting its own cells.
It was even more surprising how Joe, a person who handled his alcohol so well, could be teetering on the brink from something they all took so casually.
As doctors fought to keep Joe alive, his family prayed that their big-hearted kin would pull through. Day and night, Aggy stayed by his bedside willing him to pull through.
By the fourth day, Joe was off the ventilator, and in typical Joe style, he could not resist good humour, wondering why it was so cold in heaven.
It was a long walk back to health for Joe. He managed to avoid surgery and did not suffer additional complications. He recovered steadily, and the multitude of tubes and probes he was attached to, came off one by one. He was re-introduced to oral food to replace the parenteral nutrition (through a drip) he was being supplemented with and he started physiotherapy to restore his body function.
Today, Joe is back to his old self, humour and all. Uncle Grizzly Bear is thankful to be alive and is fully divorced form alcohol. He intends to be around long enough to ride a bike with his grandchildren and hopefully hold his great grandchildren in his arms. Aggy is grateful to have a jogging partner on the weekends.
As we indulge this festive season, let us be mindful of the little leaf-shaped organ that can cause untold pain. A little alcohol moderation goes a long way! Happy holidays!
SMALL ORGAN, INTENSE AGONY
The pancreas – a small, flat leaf-shaped organ nestled out of sight under the stomach – can be a source of intense agony. The pancreas is responsible for two major functions: manufacturing insulin, which regulates the metabolism of sugar in the body; and manufacturing 15 different digestive enzymes that are conveyed to the small intestines via the pancreatic duct.
The pancreatic duct meets with another duct, the common bile duct, from the liver on the opposite side, then empties into the first part of the small intestines, called the duodenum.
The pancreatic enzymes then go about the business of digesting food for absorption further along the intestinal tract. In normal function, these enzymes are inactive until they enter the duodenum.
In acute pancreatitis, however, these enzymes are activated while still in the pancreas.
This results in the enzymes digesting their own factory (the pancreas), causing massive inflammation. The result is excruciating pain.
The commonest causes of this condition include gallstones and excessive alcohol consumption. Most drinkers will experience an attack following an episode of heavy indulgence. It may also result from use of certain drugs and medication, severe trauma such as road traffic accidents or abdominal stab wounds that injure the pancreas.
Rare causes include genetic abnormalities, tumours, toxins such as snake bite poison, and as a complication of certain surgical procedures.
Acute pancreatitis may be mild, with the symptoms fading off in a few days. However, the more commonly seen picture in heavy drinkers is a dramatic one, with disabling pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, rapid heart rate, difficulty in breathing, muscle spasms and shock.
Just like in Joe’s case, there may be need for intensive care to keep the patient alive.