Julie Weiss was 41 when she started to feel something wasn’t right. By the time her symptoms fully took hold, she was downright miserable.
She was nauseous every day and vomited frequently. She was exhausted from not sleeping well.
The symptoms became so persistent that she became depressed. On some nights, this sweet wife and mother from Wisconsin Dells, Wis., wasn't even sure if she wanted to get out of bed the next morning. This was life as Julie knew it, for seven years.
"It was really hard,” Julie said. “I felt like I had stomach flu every day. I also had bad heartburn and body aches. When the vomiting wouldn’t stop, I went on a liquid diet for days at a time to be sure I got enough nutrients, since solid food would not stay down."
Julie got some answers, but she still didn’t know the underlying cause of her misery. First, she was diagnosed with an esophageal ulcer. Later, doctors told Julie she had gastroparesis, a condition in which normal stomach contractions slow down or stop, essentially bringing the digestive system to a halt.
High calcium level was a red flag
Julie suffered for years with these symptoms until a routine physical exam with her obstetrician/gynecologist signaled a potential solution.
"Your calcium level is elevated,” said Julie’s gynecology nurse practitioner, Maria Wolf, APNP, with Mile Bluff Medical Center in Mauston, Wis. “I want you to see your primary care doctor and have more testing done."
At long last, the code of Julie’s agony was cracked. Much to her surprise, Julie was diagnosed with hyperparathyroidism, a condition in which one or more of the parathyroid glands – each person has four – becomes overactive and secretes excess parathyroid hormone (PTH), leading to elevated calcium levels in the blood and ultimately to the patient’s misery. The only cure for hyperparathyroidism is surgical removal of the overgrown parathyroid gland, located in the neck.
Accordingly, Julie’s primary care doctor, Ann Hoffmann, MD, in Mauston, referred Julie to UW Health endocrine surgeon David Schneider, MD.
“Dr. Schneider showed me my bad parathyroid gland on the ultrasound and we scheduled surgery for three weeks later,” Julie said.
Performed on an outpatient basis, the parathyroid surgery is typically done under general anesthesia, lasting about an hour.
"About 80 percent of patients have only one overactive parathyroid," Dr. Schneider said. "However, even if we think only one gland is causing the problem, we keep each patient in the operating room (O.R.) until we confirm that the remaining parathyroid glands are normal. We actually measure the patient's parathyroid hormone level in the O.R. and, if necessary, remove more tissue until we see a steep drop in the hormone level. Like most patients, Julie needed only one parathyroid gland removed.”
An amazing, virtually instant improvement
The morning after surgery, Julie experienced nothing short of pure joy.
“For the first time in years,” she said, “I didn’t feel like I had to throw up.”
The next morning, however, Julie felt a strange sensation in her stomach. After a moment or two, she realized that things were actually just fine.
“My stomach was growling again!” she remembers shouting to her husband Raymond. “It was working." Everything else was working normally too, and today Julie is symptom-free.
Life was good again – not only for Julie but for Raymond, and their three children: Alyssa, 21; Andrew, 18; and Elizabeth, 15.
“One of the greatest things about this surgery is being able to have fun with the kids again,” Julie said. “So many of my youngest daughter’s memories of me are of her mother feeling sick, so being able to start making better family memories was such a gift."
Julie also can’t say enough about UW Health’s Endocrine Surgery care team, located at UW Health at The American Center on Madison's far East side.
“Dr. Schneider is so kind and caring, and the nurses were unbelievable," Julie said. "I would give everyone I met a 10 out of 10.”
“It’s unfortunate that hyperparathyroidism is frequently underdiagnosed,” Dr. Schneider said. “Many people like Julie suffer way too long because the dots are not being connected or patients assume their symptoms are age-related. If you are struggling without an answer, we suggest having your calcium levels checked. It could lead to getting your life back, the way it did for Julie.”