Baptist Health Opens First Reflux Center in Jacksonville

One quarter of the U.S. population has symptoms related to gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), including chest pain, trouble swallowing, sleeplessness, persistent heartburn and regurgitation. To help patients with this condition, Baptist Health is opening the first comprehensive GERD center in Jacksonville, called the Baptist Center for Bariatric and Reflux Surgery.

GERD occurs when stomach acid flows back into the esophagus (tube connecting the mouth and stomach). This backwash (acid reflux) can irritate the lining of the esophagus. People diagnosed with GERD experience acid reflux at least twice a week, or moderate to severe acid reflux that occurs at least once a week. Other GERD symptoms can include non-cardiac chest pain, chronic laryngitis, or pulmonary symptoms, such as asthma or recurrent aspiration pneumonia.

“For some patients, simple activities like lying down or having a cup of coffee can result in severe heartburn pain and acid reflux, and they may not know that there are new treatment options available,” said Craig Morgenthal, MD, who, along with Steven Hodgett, MD, is a surgeon at the new center. Both are fellowship-trained in reflux and bariatric surgery.

Many people manage the discomfort of GERD with acid-reducing medications, many of which are now available over-the-counter. However, chronic, long-term (for more than one year) use of medications called proton pump inhibitors (PPI) may be associated with potentially dangerous side effects, including increased risk of bone fractures and a potential link between PPI use and dementia.

“Patients taking PPI medications are typically advised to take the lowest dose that controls their symptoms, for the shortest period of time possible,” said Dr. Hodgett. “The problem is that many patients have no other way to manage their symptoms, so they stay on them for years. Anti-reflux surgery is a minimally invasive option that gives patients a way to come off these medications completely.”

Hope Tallon had severe heartburn and reflux for 25 years. “I had symptoms every single day. It caused burning pain and a horrible bitter taste. Playing with my dogs on the floor or doing a yoga plank would trigger it. Even taking a sip of water or coffee could cause the stomach acid to come up,” said Tallon.

Diet changes and medications didn’t help her symptoms, so her physician referred her to Dr. Morgenthal at the Baptist Bariatrics and Reflux Center. An endoscopy revealed that Tallon had erosions of her esophagus with early onset of Barrett’s Esophagus, which could eventually lead to cancer.

“Chronic acid reflux causes more than acute discomfort; it can cause long-term damage and, in rare situations, can even lead to esophageal cancer if left untreated,” said Dr. Morgenthal.

Tallon had a minimally invasive procedure called the LINX® Reflux Management System in July 2019 and has not had any GERD symptoms since.

The LINX® System is a small, flexible band of magnets enclosed in titanium beads, placed around the lower esophageal sphincter located just above the stomach. The beads temporarily separate to allow food and liquid to pass into the stomach, then close to help prevent reflux. LINX is implanted laparoscopically in a minimally invasive procedure that typically takes about one hour. Patients generally go home within one day.

“Hope was a perfect candidate for LINX. She’s young and healthy and had exhausted a number of solutions,” Dr. Morgenthal said.

Baptist Center for Bariatric and Reflux Surgery also offers fundoplication procedures, a minimally-invasive surgical technique that reinforces the lower esophageal sphincter by wrapping part of the stomach around the bottom of the esophagus. Fundoplication is often done laparoscopically, which only involves small incisions in the abdomen. Our surgeons are trained in both laparoscopic Nissen and Toupet fundoplication, as well as hiatal hernia and paraesophageal hernia repairs.

For some obese patients, the best long-term solution for GERD may be gastric bypass surgery, which also reverses other serious health issues related to obesity, such as type 2 diabetes or obstructive sleep apnea.

A physician referral is not required to go the Baptist Center for Bariatric and Reflux Surgery. The center works with primary care providers and gastroenterologists, as well as other specialists, to assist in evaluation and treatment decisions for patients with GERD to find a long-term solution.

“There are solutions for GERD,” Tallon said. “People think you just have to live with it, but you don’t. You can get it fixed and enjoy your life again like I am.”

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