Local News

Rex Hospital Opens Heartburn Center

Posted November 16, 2007 5:43 p.m. EST

— Rex Hospital has opened a center that officials hope will help the 14 million daily heartburn sufferers in the country find relief.

Many people experience occasional heartburn, and others are hit with it more often, perhaps once a month. But millions are like Michelle Montague, for whom meal times started being painful when she was in her late teens.

"Certain foods were just aggravating me," Montague said. "I began taking Tums and Rolaids, carrying them around in my makeup case on a regular basis in college."

Montague grew older and gave birth to a son, Gabriel, but her heartburn symptoms only grew worse.

"I recall my husband coming to pick me up from work in 2002. I thought I was having a heart attack," she said. "I had this pain in my chest for weeks. Chest, shoulder, it hurt to breathe."

Dr. Dan Vig, a general surgeon at Rex's Heartburn Center, said people such as Montague are often actually suffering from more than heartburn.

"Heartburn really is a symptom of gastroesophageal reflux disease, which is the broader spectrum disease," he said.

With reflux, the diaphragm opening around the esophagus grows wider. The sphincter that keeps stomach acid from flowing back up the esophagus does not work, and a sufferer can have sudden vomiting. The acid also slowly eats away at the lining, causing scarring and pain.

"There are a lot of people suffering that aren't being treated properly," Vig said.

Rex initiated a process for getting heartburn patients the appropriate tests and treatments. Some patients can be treated with medication, but for others, including Montague, surgery is the best long-term option.

Vig works through about five tiny holes laproscopically. "We close up the diaphragm, and we re-create the sphincter by wrapping the stomach around itself," he said.

The procedure requires an overnight stay at the hospital, but the patient is back to a normal schedule within one week – and a normal diet in two weeks.

Montague said the surgery enabled her to enjoy meals – even spicy ones – with her family.

"I feel great," she said. "It has been a life-saving, life-changing, life-altering experience."

Rex Hospital will hold the ultimate test of heartburn at the RBC Center starting at 5 p.m. Saturday: a celebrity chili cook-off. WRAL Meteorologist Mike Maze will be one of the celebrity chefs.