When Kerryn Barnett, 38, from Wollongong, a busy and active mum-of-three, was struck down by a debilitating condition she was desperate for cure. Kerryn spoke to that's life! about the innovative, and unusual, new treatment that gave her back her life.
Waking up one morning, I felt a wave of nausea. Have I got a bug? I wondered, feeling a pain in my stomach. That day, I kept throwing up and my tummy was bloated and sore.
Still sick two days later, I saw my GP who thought I had gastro. But a week later I was still really unwell. I looked as if I was nine months pregnant and I was vomiting up to 16 times a day.
Returning to the doctors, I was sent for an ultrasound. But nothing was picked up, so I was sent away with reflux tablets. ‘I think there’s something really wrong,’ I told my husband, Jeremy, 43, feeling scared.
Horrifyingly, my mystery illness went on for five more months. I turned from a busy mum-of-three, who loved to go jogging and ate healthily, into someone who could barely keep water down and spent every day exhausted.
Wanting to shield my children from the worst, I tried to be sick in secret. Sadly, it was impossible to hide my skinny frame as my weight plummeted by 15 kilos.
I’m wasting away and I don’t know why, I realised, looking at my baggy clothes. And I was getting so few nutrients that my teeth came loose.
‘Please help,’ I begged my doctor, who sent me for more tests. After I was given a radioactive drink, the specialists traced how food travelled through my digestive system.
They discovered that more than 80 per cent of what I ate was getting stuck in my stomach. Instead of moving to my bowel, it was rotting and fermenting inside me.
‘You have gastroparesis,’ the specialist told me. ‘It’s a rare condition where your stomach is paralysed.’ I had barely absorbed any nutrients in months. No wonder my teeth were falling out!
Although relieved to have a diagnosis, I was devastated to learn there was no cure. And no-one knew what had caused it either.
Put on a liquid diet, I dreamed of all the foods I used to love. Instead of tucking into meals out with friends, I had to call ahead and ask restaurants if they could puree my food.
‘I just want to eat a proper meal,’ I said to Jeremy. There was one option that might help. A type of pacemaker could be fitted in my stomach to push food through, but the procedure was only successful for around 50 per cent of patients.
When I went under the knife in April 2015, after not eating solid food for six months, I desperately hoped I was one of them.
After the surgery, I slowly improved. Gaining six kilos over the next five months, my energy started to bounce back. And it was wonderful to be able to enjoy meals with my family again.
I even managed some short runs, with the pacemaker jiggling in my abdomen. Then, I noticed a new problem. I was going days, sometimes up to 12, without opening my bowels.
More tests then confirmed that the gastroparesis had moved to my bowel.
‘The only solution is to remove your colon,’ the doctor told me. It was a major, irreversible operation. My small intestine would be joined to my rectum, meaning I would need to visit the toilet several times a day.
Horrified, I broke down. ‘This is never-ending,’ I cried. ‘I just want my life back.’ A second doctor said the same, but I booked an appointment at the Centre for Digestive Diseases in Sydney, hoping a third opinion would be different.
I need one last shot, I thought. But when I heard their verdict, I felt queasy. ‘We’d like to try a faecal microbiota transplant[FMT],’ the specialist said.
‘What’s that?’ I frowned.
‘We would take faeces from a donor and implant it into your bowel,’ he explained. ‘It would contain friendly bacteria that might help your gut, although it’s never been used to treat your condition before.’
The thought of the procedure made me feel ill. Could a stranger’s poo really make me better? I wondered. After thinking long and hard, I decided it was worth a try.
So I held off on the surgery and instead took medication to kill off my body’s own gut bacteria. It left me weak, faint, and even caused my hair to thin.
This better be worth it, I thought, desperately hoping it was the miracle I needed.
So in May, I had an FMT via a colonoscopy, followed by two weeks of enemas to top up the bacteria level. Almost instantly, I felt so much better.
‘You’re looking really well!’ my friends now say when we meet up. My face has more colour, and I have normal bowel movements again.
Best of all, I can eat most food. This has made the world of difference, I thought, biting into a slice of wholemeal toast.
I know people might be squeamish about a poo transplant, but I think it’s just like accepting a donor organ. Now, I’m sharing my story to show the value of getting second and third opinions.
I’m proof it pays to trust your gut.
Faecel Microbiota Transplantation (FMT)
- The use of faecal transplants, known as faecal microbiota transplantation (FMT), has been proven effective in treating many bowel conditions, especially those caused by antibiotics, which wipe out the good bacteria in your gut.
- The healthy faecal matter is administered into the gut via a colonoscopy, nasoenteric tube, or capsules.
- The revolutionary treatment has seen the rise of stool banks where people with good gut bacteria can donate their poo for a fee.