By Dr. Maria Simbra

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — At first, Hannah Grubow didn’t even know she had acid reflux. She had none of the classic symptoms like heartburn, belching and nausea.

“It was extreme chronic coughing,” Grubow, of Columbus, Ohio, said. “After a meal, if I went out to eat, the walk to the car afterwards would be terrible, just coughing and gagging constantly.”

Her regular doctor diagnosed her with allergies.

“And then I went to an allergist because my mom thought I was allergic to food like cheese or milk and the allergist nixed that,” she said.

Eventually she was diagnosed with acid reflux which affects 30 million Americans. Like most of them, she tried medicine things like proton pump inhibitors, Prilosec, Prevacid, Nexium and Protonix.

“All the different heartburn medicines out there to try and see if those would work and nothing really worked,” Grubow said.

The problem with reflux is that food and acid from the stomach back up into the esophagus, or swallowing tube. This causes cell damage that over time that can lead to cancer.

So when medicines don’t work, patients have often turned to surgery — traditionally wrapping the upper part of the stomach around the esophagus.

“And what that operation is,” says Dr. Blair Jobe with West Penn Hospital Surgery, “is basically recreating the valve so that you have a trap door effect.”

But it’s a complicated operation for many doctors, requiring a lot of time and experience to master.

“You can’t do just 10 cases of it and be an expert at it,” Jobe said. “We’ve needed another approach to standardize the technique across the board.”

So surgeons developed a new procedure using a device that was FDA approved last march.

It’s a titanium necklace of magnets, so to speak. Through small incisions and with tiny scopes and instruments, it is surgically placed at the base of the esophagus, where it connects to the stomach.

When the patient swallows, these beads come apart, and allow the food and fluid to get into the stomach, and then they snap shut.

This keeps what’s in the stomach, in the stomach.

“It doesn’t change your anatomy, which is what I really liked about it,” Grubow said.

And it’s been dramatically successful. In studies, 93 percent of patients who got the magnets no longer had to take medicine at all.

Of course though, some patients with certain stomach conditions won’t qualify. You can’t have an MRI with the magnetic beads inside you, but they can be removed if necessary. After the procedure, some people have a feeling of food getting stuck, but this goes away eventually.

As with any surgery, there is a risk of bleeding and infection. But the good news is insurance does cover it if your doctor thinks it might be right for you.

Grubow had the procedure two weeks ago, the first patient to have this done at West Penn Hospital.

“When I lay down to go to bed, I don’t have a coughing fit every night,” Grubow said. “And when I walked up the stairs, it’s not so much coughing and having to catch my breath and having to stop and cough a little bit.”

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