My Fistula, My Friend

Artery - vein fistulaI’ve had my fistula since 1995. It started out as a 5cm (2in) red scar, where the surgeon had opened my right forearm just above my wrist and joined my proximal radial artery (that runs down most of my arm to feed fresh blood to my hand) to my cephalic vein (which runs from my hand up the topside of my arm carrying used blood back to my heart).

At first, there was not that much else to see. The high-pressure blood from the artery made the vein stand out slightly above the flesh of my forearm, but no one would notice it and it was sort of normal.

BruitnpicExcept for the thrill, and the bruit: the feel and the sound of the turbulence created as blood from the artery gushes into the vein at the join (the anastomosis). The gush happens each time my heart beats, say, 55 times a minute. The thrill is the heightened tickly pulse I feel when I put my finger onto that join; the bruit is the slow-march drumbeat that pounds relentlessly when I press my fistula to my ear. Both were very primal, raw reminders that my life had changed forever.

Part of me naturally designed for lifting and carrying, cuddling and elbow-bending became the most unnatural of things: a dialysis needle gateway.

My poemAnd it has served me well so far, enduring the business end of over ten thousand 15 gauge needles, firstly stabbing a new hole each time, and later, using the same (button)holes. Buttonholing has helped reduce the tear and wear, but it has still grown and evolved into the sinewy forearm snake it is today.

And despite the occasional, blatant, What the … is THAT? look I get from strangers, it is my friend. If it had a name, it would probably be Ralph. Ralph was my best mate when we were young. He was a poet: smart, conflicted, loyal, explosive and high maintenance. I think of my fistula as a poem written in blood, with many of the same features. It tells my story – who I am and how I got here. So I cherish it, guard it closely, exercise it and service it regularly with vitamin E and TLC.

But a fistula, no matter how poetic, is not natural and will not be taken for granted.

In the early days, accidental or incompetent needling painted my arm with the Fistula Bruisers team colours – black, blue and yellow. An occasional fall where I thought I’d burst my fistula scared the hell out of me and Julie; but thankfully, a healthy fistula is a robust body part. The odd wandering buttonhole tunnel needed a new entry point; sometimes roadblocks needed various clean-outs and rebores to change the flow path.

And each episode inscribes a new verse on the poem.

carpal-tunnel1In 2010 my right (fistula) hand started to misbehave: it was weak and clumsy, my fingers and thumb were numb, with pins and needles and pain at night. I asked around and the universal answer was carpal tunnel syndrome. The carpal tunnel is an actual small tunnel, at the base of my wrist, that carries the nerve that gives sensation to my thumb and most fingers, and tendons from my forearm. Any swelling around the tunnel puts pressure on this nerve and stops it working. Carpal tunnel syndrome is very common in people with long-term fistulas, where the fistula grows bigger and generally causes swelling and compression on the nerve.

The solution is to cut into the tendons that form the tunnel and release the pressure. I had it done that year, and it worked a treat: I was once again able to do up my left cuff button in a flash. And I had a new 2cm scar at the base of my hand, mini-matching the fistula scar on my forearm to boot.

That was seven years ago. Just recently, the symptoms have returned. I went back to the carpal tunnel surgeon, who was sceptical. Carpal tunnel syndrome rarely comes back, so he arranged an MRI. Result: a new syndrome. The symptoms were caused by ischemia (not enough blood flow) in the hand; most likely from Dialysis-Associated Steal Syndrome.

Numbness and painSteal syndrome is where the blood normally destined for my hand is ‘stolen’ by my enlarged fistula. This happens in about 1% of fistulas (old and new). It can be fairly mild, like mine, all the way to complete loss of fingertip circulation and gangrene.

There are several treatments available, including reducing the flow by wrapping a band around the fistula vein, removing a portion of the vein, or moving the join between the artery and the vein further up the arm. All involve fairly complex vascular surgery.

That’s the state of play today. My 22-year old fistula is strong, healthy and just a bit of a drama queen.

I’m not sure how things will work out. I’ll start with visits to my nephrologist and the vascular surgeon who did the last service. Then decision time: perhaps once more around the surgery dance floor, perhaps I’ll just live with a clumsy hand.

Either way, I expect some new lines in my poem anytime soon.

Situation normal.

 

 

The patient and carer trained, what about the doctor?

Here we are, just a couple of weeks after posting the Fistula Health training program, and Daquon writes this:

Hi Greg. My mom is 42 she been on dialysis for 5 years. Recently her fistula had been getting big and the Dr. at dialysis told her she should be careful because it was thin and she could bleed to death. From me reading your responses on everyone else, they are supposed to fix her fistula when they noticed it was swelling up.

But lo and behold they didn’t, and a week later she woke up and blood was squirting out her arm. I call ambulance, they took her to the hospital. She got surgery done on her arm but she came home yesterday and she told me she had to change the bandage twice a day and when I help her take the bandage off it was a big hole in her arm leaking blood to the white meat. We had to stuff the hole with bandages and wrap it back up. (more…)

Fistula Rupture Health Education Package Now Available

This week the Fistula Health Education for Patients package, developed by Julie Tondello at Diaverum and me is now available for anyone on dialysis.

The Package has been prepared for use on a one-on-one basis by dialysis unit nursing staff, educating patients.

Dialysis Unit staff

  1. Print out the two-page education sheet and keep it handy for reference during each education session
  2. Print two color copies of the poster:
    1. One on an A3 or similar sized page
    2. One on an A4 or letter sized page.
  3. Laminate both posters
  4. Attach the large poster to the unit noticeboard so that all patients can see it

Schedule brief (5-10 minute) education session (more…)

Training really can stop people from dying from fistula bleeds

You may recall that in April last year, Julie Tondello (from Diaverum in Greensborough) and I developed a Fistula Safety training course and poster for dialysis patients. The main aim of this 10-minute course was to keep people safe from fistula ruptures and bleeds, both by knowing what to look out for to prevent it from happening and by Pressing and Lifting to stop the bleeding if it happened.

Julie ran the training as a one-on-one session for all patients at Greensborough and North Melbourne dialysis units. Surveys before and after indicated that it was universally well-received and effective.

But as always, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. (more…)

Skin too thin for a fistula?

John emailed me today:
Hello Greg,

800px-Schema_fistule_arterio-veineuse_-_AV_fistulaI found your Big D and Me blog when Googling “fistula thin skin”. Thank you for the thoughtful blogging about dialysis and your compassionate spirit reflected in your posts. If you don’t mind, I’m writing to ask your advice or for some of your knowledge. If you wish, I can re-post this on your blog site and you can reply there if you want this thread available to all.

My 81-year-old mom has been on dialysis for 5 years in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. She began dialysis soon after heart surgery. To begin dialysis, she went through the usual process of a Permacath while building/growing a fistula in her left arm. The fistula performed well until last Spring when her fistula burst and haemorrhaged twice, each of which nearly killed her. The vascular surgeon opened the fistula site to rebuild but said the fistula was heavily ulcerated and unusable. (I suspect poor care of the fistula over time by medical staff, but that is in the past.)

We had an appointment with the vascular surgeon for her to have a vein mapping done in her other arm for a possible new fistula, but the port, which she had put in after the fistula burst, became infected and she became septic. She was taken to the hospital to have the infection treated with IV antibiotics, so she missed the vein mapping appointment. While in the hospital, the cardiologist and nephrologist said she was not a candidate for a new fistula because her skin is too thin and fragile.

While I believe it is certainly possible that her skin could be too fragile, it’s odd to me that the vascular surgeon, who examined the arm just a couple of weeks earlier, seemed encouraging about the possibility of a new fistula. (It’s hard to know who’s opinion to trust more. I value the cardiologist’s opinion least because he doesn’t deal with the mechanical aspects of a fistula and dialysis scenarios as much.)

Without a fistula, of course, a Permacath is the only other option, which I believe will likely become infected with time.

Question: Have you heard, in your experience, of age and/or skin condition being a factor in evaluating a fistula site, and then completely ruling out the possibility of a fistula?

If a port is going to be her only option, can you offer advice about avoiding infection and catching it early if it happens? (My understanding is that a port is always removed when there is an infection because a foreign body can harbor bacteria. Of course, infection and port removal mean yet more hospital stays and procedures.)

Part of the picture here is my mom’s quality of life. She is very sharp mentally and was walking on her walker a few weeks ago. I believe she could continue with a significant quality of life if she could remain infection free and dialysing regularly without incident. But, with event after event (haemorrhages and infections), she has expressed an unwillingness to tolerate that for long, and I would not blame her.

Thanks for any advice or knowledge you may offer.

My initial response:

Hi John.  Thanks for your email.

I’m sorry to hear about your mother. It is an awful time for both of you.  Give me a couple of days to think and to ask around.  I’ll come back to you soon.

In the meantime, I’ll put up your question as a new post, so that others may help too.

Update:  We’ve had some great responses:

  • Henning, as usual, told it as it is:

….Hello Greg and John,

Unfortunately, the cardiologist and nephrologist are probably right. You do need a certain level of tissue above the fistula for it not to create trouble. On the other hand, I can’t be too deep either. The more shallow the fistula, the greater the risk of haemorrhage. (see the rest in his comment below)

  • Julie Tondello gave us the clinician’s viewpoint:

Hi Greg,

In our experience, the viability of creating a new fistula would generally be established through vein mapping and reviewed by a vascular surgeon and care by a vascular access nurse.

Many dialysis patients are in their 80’s and even 90’s have very fragile skin.

Avoiding infection of a perm cath needs to be the responsibility of nursing/ medical staff and the patient themselves. The incidence of infection will vary from clinic to clinic but a good clinic should have zero infections. Be scrupulous with hygiene is paramount. Many clinics use the principles of Aseptic Non-Touch Technique (ANTT) through the procedure of connection, disconnection and dressing changes.

Small measures but important, patient and nurse wear a mask when connecting/ disconnecting/dressing. Look for early signs of infection, inflammation, temperature, rigors. Change dressing weekly unless dressing compromised. Advise patient not to get permcath wet in shower or pool.

I hope this is of some help.

Regards, Julie

  • In another comment dynamicdialysis (below) suggested seeing a vascular surgeon vascular surgeon, and that fistulas  can be made in the leg.

Many thanks to all so far!

(more…)

Preventing Fistula Ruptures: training course for patients

DV Poster 99DesI have just returned from the Renal Society of Australia’s annual conference, held on June 20 t0 22 this year at the Gold Coast, Queensland.  The conference is for renal professionals, nurses, clinicians, doctors and consultants. I went along because I was a co-author on one of the presentations.

The other author and presenter was Julie Tondello, a renal Associate Nurse Unit Manager at my Diaverum dialysis clinic in Diamond Valley, Victoria. The paper was called “Can your fistula rupture?” and was triggered by the ongoing posts, comments and queries about fistula rupture deaths on this blog. (more…)

e-Patients: being our own guardian angel

1-IMG_1532I am now in week 5 of the eHealth MOOC I wrote about in my last post.

It has been a revelation.

The most eye-opening subject was covered in week 3: eHealth for patients and citizens: all about e-patients.

Before we go further, meet e-patient Dave deBronkhart.  His story cuts to the chase: it saves me writing and it saves you reading.  It only runs for 16 minutes, and its great! (more…)

Dialysis needling: if at first…

 

Buttonholes

Buttonholes!

Josie (not her real name) emailed me recently about a problem she had getting one of her needles in:

 

Hi Greg

I hope you don’t mind me getting in touch. My name is Josie, I live in the UK and started home haemo a few months ago. I have had a problem with my fistula tonight and because it is Friday night here I can’t get hold of any of the nurses from my training unit, and having followed your blog I thought I could seek your advice… as I say, I hope you don’t mind me doing so. (more…)

Dialysis, Boiling Frogs and Fistulagrams

FrogWith all things BigD, I don’t like surprises.  Yet they still arrive, even when I think things are going well.  It can be a lot like the story of the boiled frog.

Put a frog into a pot of boiling water, it will leap out straight away to escape the danger.  But, if you put a frog in a pot that is filled with water that is cool and pleasant, and then you gradually heat the kettle until it starts boiling, the frog will not become aware of the threat until it is too late. (more…)

Healthy on Dialysis for 32 Years (and more to come!)

Kevin Collins emailed me the other day, to follow up on my post about the Nocturnal Dialysis service being offered by the Diaverum Dialysis Unit at North Melbourne.  In it I said that nocturnal dialysis started in Australia in Geelong in the late ‘90s.  But no! There was much work done and quite a story before that.  A story that is well worth sharing.

Kevin is a very interesting guy.  He was born in 1963 with Alport Syndrome, a genetic disorder which results in end-stage kidney disease and hearing and vision difficulties.  His kidneys started failing when he was 3.5 years old, (more…)