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Eating made teen sick, Studer Family Children's Hospital pediatric specialists helped find answers

Posted: 8/7/2018

On good days, Erica Thrush doesn't let her illness stop her from living her life. She still swims and even participated in a dance recital this year.

PENSACOLA, Fla. — Every time Kerri Thrush’s 15-year-old daughter Erica ate more than a couple of bites of food, she experienced severe stomach cramping, vomiting and nausea. The debilitating discomfort caused her to lose 40 pounds over several months.

“Doctors couldn’t find anything physically wrong with Erica, so they suspected she had an eating disorder,” Thrush recalled. “Unfortunately, we convinced ourselves of that, too.”

Before placing Erica in an eating disorders treatment center, Thrush called a friend at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola, asking for her help in finding a doctor who could figure out why her daughter couldn’t eat. Her friend recommended Alan Sacks, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist, and James Burns, M.D., a specialist in adolescent medicine, both University of Florida faculty who practice full-time at Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart.

In four months, Erica, a straight-A student at West Florida High School of Advanced Technology, had gone from a healthy 116-pound competitive dancer to a severely malnourished 76-pound teen who missed school days because of her declining health. Thrush knew they were running out of time, so Erica was admitted to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit at The Studer Family Children’s Hospital at Sacred Heart, where she could receive the multidisciplinary care she needed. Sacred Heart is part of Ascension, the nation’s largest, nonprofit health system.

“Dr. Sacks and Dr. Burns were the only doctors who listened to Erica when she described the pain she felt when she ate,” Thrush said. “It meant the world to us to have them working together as a team to find answers.”

After an upper endoscopy revealed she had undigested food in her stomach, Dr. Sacks ordered a stomach emptying test to measure how quickly food was leaving her stomach. The results were positive for gastroparesis, a condition that causes incomplete stomach emptying. As a result, she wasn’t absorbing nutrients from food. The hallmark symptoms for this disease are nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite, bloating and chronic abdominal pain.

Erica’s malnutrition was exacerbated by another digestive condition called superior mesenteric artery syndrome, or SMAS, that occurs when part of the small intestine is pinched between two arteries, completely blocking digestion. To make sure Erica receives the basic nutrients she needs to thrive, a nasal feeding tube was placed in June to provide continuous feeds for 20 hours each day.

“Although finding out Erica has gastroparesis and SMAS is not something we wanted to hear, there was comfort in having a diagnosis instead of not knowing what was wrong,” Kerri said. 

With the help of the feeding tube and a registered dietitian at The Children’s Hospital who taught Erica how a special diet can minimize symptoms, she has regained 14 pounds.

Kerri said she admires Erica’s resilience.

“Her dad tells her, ‘Fight the good fight today,’” Kerri said. “On good days, she doesn’t let her feeding tube get in the way of living her life. She has gone camping and to the beach, enjoys swimming in the pool with her sister Gianna, and recently performed at a dance recital.”

Once Erica regains more weight, her team will explore other treatment options. In the meantime, she will be starting her sophomore year at West Florida High School.

The collaboration between the University of Florida and Sacred Heart began in 2017 when Sacred Heart formed an affiliation with UF Health to provide an expanded range of specialized pediatric care. Since then, UF and Sacred Heart together have hired 25 physician specialists, providing care in pediatric cardiology, pediatric endocrinology, pediatric gastroenterology, pediatric hematology/oncology, pediatric infectious diseases, pediatric nephrology, pediatric orthopedic surgery, pediatric otolaryngology, pediatric pulmonology, pediatric surgery and pediatric urology.

About Sacred Heart Health System

In Florida, Ascension operates Sacred Heart Health based in Pensacola and St. Vincent’s HealthCare based in Jacksonville.  Together, Ascension operates seven hospitals and more than 100 other sites of care, and they employ nearly 10,000 associates. Across the region, Sacred Heart and St. Vincent’s have served North Florida communities for more than 145 years. In fiscal year 2017, they provided $168 million in community benefit and care of persons living in poverty. Ascension (www.ascension.org) is a faith-based healthcare organization dedicated to transformation through innovation across the continuum of care. As the largest non-profit health system in the U.S. and the world’s largest Catholic health system, Ascension is committed to delivering compassionate, personalized care to all, with special attention to persons living in poverty and those most vulnerable. Ascension includes approximately 165,000 associates and 34,000 aligned providers. Ascension’s Healthcare Division operates more than 2,600 sites of care -- including 153 hospitals and more than 50 senior living facilities -- in 22 states and the District of Columbia. For more information on Sacred Heart Health System, visit www.sacred-heart.org.

About University of Florida Health

UF Health is the Southeast’s most comprehensive academic health center. With main campuses in Gainesville and Jacksonville, UF Health includes six health colleges, eight research centers and institutes, two teaching hospitals, six specialty hospitals and a host of physician medical practices and outpatient services throughout North Central and Northeast Florida. Its mission is to promote health through outstanding and high-quality patient care, innovative and rigorous education in the health professions and biomedical sciences, and high-impact research across the spectrum of basic, translational and clinical investigation.

UF Health includes the UF colleges of Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Public Health and Health Professions, and Veterinary Medicine, which has both a large animal hospital and a small animal hospital. The system also encompasses eight research centers and institutes. The full spectrum of patient-care services are provided through UF Health Shands Hospital and UF Health Jacksonville, UF’s private, not-for-profit affiliates. UF Health Shands in Gainesville includes UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, UF Health Shands Cancer Hospital, the UF Health Heart & Vascular Hospital and the UF Health Neuromedicine Hospital. Two additional specialty hospitals, UF Health Shands Rehab Hospital and UF Health Shands Psychiatric Hospital, are also in Gainesville. UF Health Jacksonville and UF Health North Hospital are the system’s Northeast Florida hospitals. UF Health offers a network of outpatient rehabilitation centers, two home health agencies in Gainesville and Jacksonville, and more than 100 UF physician outpatient practices throughout North Central and Northeast Florida.

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