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News / Health / Clark County Health

Device gives Woodland man with digestive disorder hope for a new life

Electronics help stimulate gastroparesis patient's gut

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian Health Reporter
Published: December 11, 2017, 6:05am
4 Photos
Zack Groen of Woodland has gastroparesis, a debilitating digestive condition, and recently received a gastric device surgically implanted in his stomach to help improve his digestive function. Although Groen said the device hasn’t stopped his gastrointestinal symptoms, it has improved his body’s function by about 40 percent.
Zack Groen of Woodland has gastroparesis, a debilitating digestive condition, and recently received a gastric device surgically implanted in his stomach to help improve his digestive function. Although Groen said the device hasn’t stopped his gastrointestinal symptoms, it has improved his body’s function by about 40 percent. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Zack Groen doesn’t know what “normal” feels like.

Groen, 25, was an average, healthy baby. But by age 6, he had fallen off of the growth chart. That’s also when the frequent vomiting, diarrhea and lethargy started.

“I haven’t ever really felt much different,” said Groen, who lives in Woodland.

By the time Groen was 9, he weighed less than he did as a 6-year-old. He saw numerous specialists who ran a litany of tests looking for tumors and leukemia and lesions in his upper gastrointestinal tract. Everything came back negative.

Finally, when Groen was 11 and weighed just 43 pounds, he was diagnosed with celiac disease — an immune reaction to eating gluten that can damage the small intestine and prevent the absorption of nutrients.

After cutting gluten from his diet, Groen experienced some improvement. He had occasional stomach issues, but, for the most part, the gastrointestinal symptoms went away. He stopped missing school. His grades improved.

But by the time he reached his senior year at La Center High School, the stomach pain, vomiting and diarrhea were again daily occurrences.

“Nausea and diarrhea consumed my life,” he said.

Another endoscopy finally shed some light on what was plaguing Groen. After a full day of fasting for the procedure, Groen’s stomach was still full of food. The unusually slow digestion led to more tests that, ultimately, revealed Groen had a condition called gastroparesis.

Typically, strong muscle contractions push food through the gastrointestinal tract. But with gastroparesis, those contractions aren’t strong enough to effectively move food. So the food sits in the stomach. As the stomach fills up, the person vomits, said Dr. Greg Starley, surgeon at Legacy Medical Group-General Surgery in Gresham, Ore.

“It’s a miserable life,” he said. “They can barely get enough nutrition to get by.”

They’re also plagued with constant nausea.

“Imagine having morning sickness … that doesn’t go away,” said Dr. Harald Schoeppner, Groen’s gastroenterologist.

Schoeppner first tried a dietary adjustment for Groen. He recommended a diet with plenty of fluids and carbs that are easy to digest. He told Groen to cut heavy foods and rich proteins.

When the adjustment didn’t lead to much improvement, Schoeppner prescribed medications to help facilitate emptying the stomach. The drugs made things worse.

“It’s one of these conditions, since we don’t have a cure for a lot of these patients, it’s really difficult to treat,” Schoeppner said.

Fortunately, Schoeppner and Starley had one other option for Groen: surgery.

Gastric pacer

About a year and a half ago, Schoeppner approached Starley about teaming up to begin placing gastric pacer devices. The pacer, Starley said, is similar to a pacemaker for the heart. A battery pack sends signals to electrical leads implanted in the muscle and cause the muscle to contract.

“Like stimulating the heart to beat, ours stimulates the stomach to squeeze,” Starley said.

Starley does most of his surgeries robotically and wanted to perform the procedure using the robot, which allows for greater dexterity and better visualization than laparoscopic procedures. Groen underwent the procedure in April at Legacy Mount Hood Medical Center in Gresham, Ore. He was one of the hospital’s first patients to receive the device, and one of the first in the state to undergo the robot-assisted procedure.

“It’s a glimmer of hope for these patients who have been told by many doctors that, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you,’ ” Schoeppner said.

The device, however, is not a perfect fix, Starley said. Many patients see about 50 to 70 percent improvement.

“For people who can’t eat anything and vomit all of the time, 50 percent is huge,” Starley said.

Groen said he’d put his improvement at about 40 percent. He still experiences nausea and vomiting; mornings are particularly rough. But rather than spending the entire day in the bathroom, Groen said, he’s usually feeling better by about 1:30 or 2 p.m.

The improvement — while not as big as he had hoped — has given Groen more confidence. Groen tried taking online college classes in the past, but his illness made it impossible to keep up, and his anxiety made him fear crowds. Now, he hopes to soon enroll at Clark College and wants to give classes on campus a try. He plans to pursue fiction writing — using his own experiences as a backdrop.

“I’ve been through a lot of dark times,” Groen said. “It would be nice to have my stories out there and have people read them.”

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After spending years of his life “down in the dumps” and borderline suicidal, Groen said he’s ready to start living.

“It does give me more hope,” Groen said of the gastric device. “It opened my eyes to the opportunities.”

“I’ve been sitting on the sidelines for so long,” he added. “I want to get out there and do something.”

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Columbian Health Reporter