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Eating Again After the POEM Procedure


Among many services, UPMC Passavant offers advanced gastrointestinal and thoracic care, closer to home.
Among many services, UPMC Passavant offers advanced gastrointestinal and thoracic care, closer to home.

Art West is enjoying eating once more, thanks to the POEM procedure, a new treatment offered at UPMC Passavant–McCandless. Performed by gastroenterologist Sultan Mahmood, MD, the highly specialized procedure allowed the Hollidaysburg, PA, resident to swallow again — and likely saved his life.



Art West, shown in an undated photo before being diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder, is back to eating his favorite foods thanks to the POEM procedure, a new treatment offered at UPMC Passavant -McCandless.
Art West, shown in an undated photo before being diagnosed with a rare digestive disorder, is back to eating his favorite foods thanks to the POEM procedure, a new treatment offered at UPMC Passavant -McCandless.

For years, Art West, 71, had trouble swallowing. He eventually was diagnosed with achalasia, a rare digestive disorder affecting the nerves and muscles of the esophagus and lower esophageal sphincter (LES). The muscles don’t function properly with achalasia, so it prevents the esophagus from squeezing food into the stomach.


West initially decided to “manage his disease,” as he was hesitant to undergo surgery. However, in 2023, his symptoms worsened. When he tried to eat, the food became stuck in his chest. He would throw up within 30 to 45 minutes after eating or drinking. He lost 110 pounds over five months.


“Swallowing was very difficult and uncomfortable. I got to the point where I couldn’t eat or drink anything,” said West, a resident of Hollidaysburg, PA. “I just gave up trying.”


AN INCISIONLESS PROCEDURE


Ryan Levy, MD
Ryan Levy, MD

West made an appointment at UPMC and initially saw Ryan Levy, MD, co-division chief, Division of Thoracic Surgery, UPMC, and chief of thoracic surgery, UPMC Passavant. Dr. Levy had cared for West’s wife, Terry, during her successful lung cancer treatment.


Dr. Levy attempted an endoscopic procedure to stretch West’s esophagus and relax the esophageal sphincter. But during the procedure, he discovered West’s esophagus was clogged with week-old food that had to be cleaned out.



Sultan Mahmood, MD
Sultan Mahmood, MD

He knew West needed surgery to cut muscle fibers in his LES to allow food to pass. But due to his extreme weight loss and poor health, West was no longer a candidate for traditional surgery. Instead, Dr. Levy recommended that he be evaluated by UPMC Passavant’s new gastroenterologist, Sultan Mahmood, MD, for an innovative, incisionless procedure to treat achalasia — a peroral endoscopic myotomy (POEM).


A SPECIALIZED AND LESS INVASIVE OPTION


While medicine and injections can provide temporary relief, surgery is needed to treat severe achalasia. Until now, that meant surgeons had to make small abdominal incisions to reach the LES.



Dr. Mahmood is a specialist in interventional endoscopy, which uses advanced endoscopic technology to diagnose and treat certain conditions without surgery. He learned the POEM procedure while doing a fellowship at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center at Harvard University. Performing the procedure requires highly specialized training and complex medical decision making.


POEM is a minimally invasive procedure performed during an endoscopy rather than through an incision, offering a quicker recovery without stitches. A small light and camera at the tip of the scope allow doctors to see and cut the muscle fibers to permanently open the lower esophageal sphincter.


“The POEM procedure eliminates the need for abdominal incisions,” explained Dr. Mahmood. “It is less invasive and has fewer complications, which is especially beneficial for older patients and those with complex issues.”


A LIFE-CHANGING PROCEDURE


When West met with Dr. Mahmood, he immediately felt at ease. “He had answers for all of my questions. He told me, ‘This will give you relief,’” said West. “That put me at ease.”


West admitted to feeling excited as his October procedure date approached. “I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t eat or drink, I couldn’t even talk. I just laid in my recliner.”




West’s POEM procedure took about an hour. He was discharged from UPMC Passavant the following day, after a barium swallow contrast x-ray to make sure everything was working. Before leaving, he “inhaled” his lunch — chicken broth, fruit cup, and gelatin dessert. A week later, he was allowed to begin eating soft foods.


“The first thing I ate was macaroni and cheese,” said West. “When it went down, I started crying like a baby.”


He had a bucket ready, but the food stayed in his stomach. “After waiting about an hour, I asked for seconds,” West said with a laugh.


West said he had no side effects from the procedure — no pain, not even a sore throat. He is slowly regaining his strength — and weight — and looks forward to walking his dog again. He especially enjoys eating now and is working his way through a long list of food items he compiled before his procedure. “I’m able to eat things I couldn’t even attempt before,” he said.


The POEM procedure was “life changing,” said West, who is thinking about getting a tattoo with his surgery date. He and his wife were so grateful to Dr. Mahmood and the nursing staff, they sent flowers to them after his discharge.


“I told Dr. Mahmood he saved my life,” said West. “We just wanted to say, ‘Thank you.’ Everyone at UPMC Passavant was wonderful and attentive. I couldn’t have received better care.”


TO LEARN MORE


Read about UPMC gastrointestinal services close to home at UPMCPassavant.com/GI.



About the POEM Procedure



During the POEM procedure, a small light and camera at the tip of a scope allow Passavant endoscopists to see and cut muscle fibers to permanently open the lower esophageal sphincter. The minimally invasive procedure eliminates the need for abdominal incisions.
During the POEM procedure, a small light and camera at the tip of a scope allow Passavant endoscopists to see and cut muscle fibers to permanently open the lower esophageal sphincter. The minimally invasive procedure eliminates the need for abdominal incisions.

POEM, or peroral endoscopic myotomy, is a new incisionless technique offered at UPMC Passavant–McCandless to treat achalasia, as well as other swallowing and digestive disorders.

This minimally invasive procedure has proven to be as effective, if not better, than the traditional laparoscopic approach (called a Heller myotomy) for correcting the problems caused by achalasia, said Sultan Mahmood, MD, a specialist in interventional endoscopy at UPMC Passavant–McCandless.


POEM involves guiding an endoscope through the mouth and down the esophagus rather than through abdominal incisions. The surgeon then cuts the muscle fibers that prevent the lower esophageal sphincter from opening. This helps widen the space for food to pass into the stomach.


The procedure lasts about one hour and is performed under general anesthesia. Patients usually spend one night in the hospital. They are discharged after a barium swallow test shows everything is working normally.


According to Dr. Mahmood, POEM is about 90% effective in relieving symptoms in patients. But he adds, the POEM procedure may not be the best option for everyone.


“Some patients are better suited for surgery or another intervention,” said Dr. Mahmood. “We work closely with specialists from different medical disciplines to develop the most appropriate, comprehensive, and tailored treatment plans for our patients.”


WHAT IS ACHALASIA?


Achalasia is a rare swallowing disorder that occurs when the muscles at the bottom of the esophagus don’t work properly. Food frequently gets stuck in the esophagus before it eventually passes through. Patients may throw up the food that doesn’t pass through. In addition to difficulty swallowing, this condition can cause extreme discomfort, weight loss, and pain.


BENEFITS OF THE POEM PROCEDURE


The POEM procedure is a minimally invasive endoscopic treatment. Benefits for patients include:

  • Less pain

  • Quicker recovery

  • No abdominal surgery or external scarring

  • Shorter hospital stays


POEM TREATMENTS FOR OTHER GASTROINTESTINAL DISORDERS


UPMC Passavant also offers the POEM procedure to treat two other gastrointestinal disorders: gastroparesis and Zenker’s diverticulum. The procedures are slightly different for each condition being treated:


  • G-POEM, or gastric peroral endoscopic myotomy, is used to treat gastroparesis — a condition where the stomach does not empty properly. The gastroenterologist uses a similar approach to the POEM procedure, cutting a different muscle where the bottom of the stomach meets the small intestine.

  • Z-POEM is used to treat Zenker’s diverticulum, a pouch that develops in the back of the throat and blocks food from entering the esophagus. The gastroenterologist cuts the dividing wall that has formed where the small pouch bulges from the esophagus.

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