Maureen Rizzolo isn’t sure where she acquired clostridium difficile, an infection more commonly known as “C. diff.” All she knows is that it ended up being the worst experience of her life.
“It was horrible. Medications were terrible and I was getting nowhere with it. It just kept rebounding and rebounding,” Rizzolo explains. “It was awful. I had to be isolated in the hospital because it’s so highly contagious. The room had its own bathroom, and I tell you I lived in it.”
Symptoms of a C. diff infection include relentless diarrhea, loss of appetite, nausea, and abdominal pain. Dr. Jorge Sotelo, gastroenterologist at Baystate Medical Center, says that C. diff usually attacks people after they are exposed to antibiotics, even if antibiotics are given with appropriate medical reasoning. C. diff can be spread anywhere, but most often it’s shared in medical environments.
“Normally all of us have a large number of microorganisms in our bowel that live in harmony with us,” Sotelo says. “Sometimes when we receive an antibiotic, these friendly microorganisms are accidentally wiped out of our bowel. Then a bacterium called clostridium difficile may find itself with a large amount of space and resources, grows out of proportion, and makes us sick.”
A SEVERE CASE OF C. DIFF INFECTION
Sotelo explains the severity of a C. diff infection can range from mild to severe. When no treatments are effective and the infection continuously reoccurs, some people have their colons removed.
The infection had taken over Rizzolo’s life. She suddenly became unable to leave her house because she so frequently became sick, and she needed around the clock personal assistance.
"I thought I was going to die, I really did,” she says. “I wasn’t getting the proper nutrition. Nothing was staying with me. I couldn’t go anywhere, I couldn’t do anything. I had to stay close to the toilet. It was horrible. I really didn’t think I was going to make it, I really didn’t.”
FECAL TRANSPLANT PROCEDURE
Sotelo began considering whether a fecal transplant procedure would be appropriate to consider with Rizzolo. The treatment carries a 95% success rate for C. diff, but is still classified as an experimental treatment by the FDA.
Similar to a blood transfusion, a healthy donor submits their fecal matter for testing. The specimen is analyzed to ensure it is safe for another person to receive. The specimen is mixed with saline and strained to distill its good microorganisms.
“The transplant replenishes your bowel with friendly microorganisms that balance out the C. diff and create a healthier environment of positive bacteria,” Sotelo says. “We rely on very strict criteria to select and test the donors.”
Rizzolo considered her options. Given her level of suffering, she decided to follow Sotelo’s advice and move forward with a fecal transplant.
“There are different ways to deliver the transplant,” says Sotelo. “It can be done by inserting a small plastic tube through the nose and into the stomach; it can be delivered into the small bowel while doing an endoscopy; or it can be delivered into the colon while doing a colonoscopy. Another option is using capsules that have the transplant inside; then the patient just needs to swallow the capsules.”
Rizzolo explains, “The doctor did the nasal approach directly into my stomach. The procedure itself didn’t even take five minutes. There was no pain involved. I said ‘are you ready’ and he said ‘we’re done!’”
A MIRACLE TREATMENT FOR C. DIFF
Within a week, Rizzolo’s constant stomach sickness and misery began to go away. "In one word, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle,” Rizzolo repeats.
Her daughter, Julie Belli-Nelson, agrees. Their tight-knit family lived through many difficult months, desperately searching for something that could help Rizzolo.
“I get emotional about it. We lost her for like year and a half,” Belli-Nelson says with tears in her eyes. “She couldn’t get up by herself. She was so weak. Now she’s back to being like herself.”
Rizzolo believes her immune system is stronger than it ever was before, and that other medical conditions have improved. Since the fecal transplant was completed, she has been able to eliminate or decrease several medications she was prescribed.
“I’m sharing my story to see if I can help somebody else—even one person, if it will help them,” Rizzolo says. “I really, truly believe that the medical profession should start looking at fecal transplant as a possible solution for other issues. From your brain down, it’s amazing. It gives you back life that you never thought you’d have again.”
THE FUTURE OF FECAL TRANSPLANT
Rizzolo and Belli-Nelson hope that more and more people who suffer from C. diff will speak to their doctors about the procedure, and that one day it will be used to treat other ailments, too.
Despite the fact that insurance companies typically do not pay for the procedure, Baystate performs the procedure for people who can benefit from it.
As an experimental drug, Sotelo says that the FDA is continuing to investigate other potential uses for fecal transplant, such as irritable bowel syndrome or colitis, and he is optimistic that insurance companies will one day come around. In the meantime, he’s just happy that Rizzolo has her happiness back.
“He is amazing. God bless that man,” Rizzolo says. “I am so grateful that he was there when I needed him. I was one of the first people they used this treatment with at Baystate. It’s done wonders for me. I was always full of life and lively, commenting and making jokes, and all of a sudden the life was out of me. This procedure has brought me back.”
Learn more about diagnosis and treatment for this and other gastroenterology conditions.