Why Can't I Eat?

Spend any time with 19-year old Mikka White and you'll find her engaging personality and positive outlook on life contagious. You would never imagine that throughout her childhood this same young woman averaged two emergency room visits per week, and was told consistently that her symptoms were all in her head. Even today she must avoid major food groups because she suffers from a rare condition known as eosinophilic esophagitis, which can make it almost impossible to eat.

"The impact eosinophilic esphagitis (EOE) has on patients and their family's quality of life is so profound that it really moves you to want to help them," said Dan Atkins, MD, Professor of Pediatrics. "Many struggle just to get an accurate diagnosis, much less an effective treatment."


Gastrointestinal Eosinophilic Diseases Program

In January 2008 Drs. Atkins and Glenn Furuta, of The Children's Hospital in Denver, established the Gastrointestinal Eosinophilic Diseases Program to diagnose and treat this potentially life-threatening disease. It is one of only a handful in the nation and the only one within a thousand miles of Denver. In its first few months of operation, patients from around the nation have come to the clinic, physicians from across the country have come to observe the program, and scientists have begun basic and translational research studies.

"We have a three-pronged approach with focus on clinical, educational, and research improvements," said Dr. Furuta. "This is the beginning of important and wide-ranging work. The establishment of this clinic puts National Jewish Health and Children's Hospital on the cutting edge of research and clinical work."


About Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EoE)

Eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) is characterized by swelling of the esophagus (the part of the body connecting the throat and the stomach) caused by an immune-system cell, the eosinophil, and is often associated with severe food allergies. Symptoms of EoE can range from severe heartburn, to difficulty swallowing, nausea, vomiting, food stuck in the esophagus, and weight loss. The difficulty swallowing can often be so severe that patients can not even swallow medication.

Because many EoE symptoms are often associated with other gastrointestinal diseases, and EoE is not widely recognized, many patients go years before they are accurately diagnosed.

"It was terrible, nobody outside of my family believed that the pain I felt was real," said Mikka. "My health was deteriorating and I had no answers, no solutions. Worst of all, I had no idea what was going on inside my body."


Mikka Visits National Jewish Health

After suffering for eleven years with progressively more severe symptoms Mikka finally got a break when her brother-in-law, Landon Edwards, a third-year medical student at the time, recognized her symptoms during a lecture on EoE, and sent her to Dr. John Udall Jr., MD, Chairman of Pediatrics and Gastroenterology at West Virginia University. Dr. Udall diagnosed Mikka with EoE and referred her to Dr. Atkins at National Jewish Health. Weeks later Mikka and her mother drove from their home in West Virginia to Denver for treatment in the program.

EoE often comes with many complicating health issues. Because of the difficulty swallowing, children can become malnourished and, in some extreme circumstances, need feeding tubes. From a psychological standpoint, the disease subjects the entire family to tremendous amount of anxiety and stress.

"This clinic is a model of cooperation between two world class organizations that are working together to benefit children and young adults," said Dr. Atkins. "Being able to combine our resources and expertise allows us to focus on individualized care and treatment of the entire family. Already we have made strides in the quality of treatment and the quality of life for patients and their families." In just a few months of working with Dr. Atkins, Dr. Furuta and other members of the team, Mikka has stayed out of the emergency room and added several foods to her diet.

"I feel so much healthier and have more energy than I can ever remember," said Mikka. "I am able to take charge of my condition and live my life."



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