Heather Allsbrooks would love to take her three children to Europe someday. In the near future, she and her husband are hoping to arrange a family trip out West.
Just a year ago, those plans would have seemed an unattainable dream, as Heather experienced constant pain in her back and flank area. But the Charlotte, Tennessee, woman found the Renal Autotransplant Program at UW Health, where doctors performed a procedure that finally gave her relief from her pain.
Even as a child, Heather suffered from extraordinary pain during her menstrual cycles—pain that caused her to stay home from school several days each month. During her first pregnancy at age 22, she experienced debilitating Braxton-Hicks contractions, a problem which continued and worsened during her second pregnancy. By the time she stopped breastfeeding her third child, her body settled into a pattern of hormone levels that made the pain constant. “None of my doctors could figure out what was wrong,” says Heather, who is now 38. “My gynecologist thought I just had really bad PMS (pre-menstrual syndrome).”
In 2016, doctors diagnosed her with pelvic congestion, and she underwent a hysterectomy. That eased the pain for about a year, but it came back with a vengeance, much to her exasperation. “I could no longer take my daily walks,” she says. “I couldn’t stand up behind the kitchen counter for more than 15 or 20 minutes without being in excruciating pain.”
Eventually, she saw a vascular surgeon who gave her a diagnosis—nutcracker syndrome, a rare condition where the vein that drains the left kidney is compressed by an artery in the abdomen resulting in significant pain. The vascular surgeon placed a stent into a pelvic vein, but that didn’t ease her pain.
In 2019, Heather found the UW Health Renal Autotransplant Program in Madison, Wisconsin, via a Facebook page for people with nutcracker syndrome. Gradually, she learned more about her condition from the other women on the page and found out UW Health had found a solution—renal autotransplant, which involved removing the kidney and ureter and placing it in a different place lower in the abdomen. She called UW Health and spoke with Shanee Ellison, transplant coordinator for the program. “She knew exactly what I was talking about,” says Heather. “For so many years, I thought I was just a weak person who wasn’t capable of dealing with pain. To hear that reassurance from her was amazing.”
As Heather continued through the process of scheduling her autotransplant surgery, she was especially gratified to work with David Foley, MD, FACS. “He truly cared about my individual case and walked both my husband and me through the plan,” she says. “My family and I were so blessed God pointed us to him and the RAP team.”
Heather underwent her surgery on June 11, 2021. Even though she still is recovering from the procedure, she can already feel a difference. “I can take a deep breath and not feel that crunching pain in my abdomen that has haunted me my whole life,” she says. “I can honestly say for the first time in a long time that I’m thinking about my future.”