Fecal Transplant Gives Maureen Rizzolo Her Life Back
Maureen Rizzolo isn’t sure where she acquired clostridium difficile, an infection more commonly known as “C. diff.” All she knows is that it initiated the worst experience of her life, beginning back in December 2014.
“It was horrible. Medications were terrible and I was getting nowhere with it; it just kept rebounding and rebounding,” Rizzolo said. “It was awful. I had to be isolated 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 is exchanged in medical environments.
“Normally all of us have a large amount of microorganisms in our bowel that lives in harmony with us,” Sotelo said. “Sometimes when we receive an antibiotic, many of these friendly microorganisms are accidentally wiped out of our bowel; then a bacterium called clostridium difficile finds itself with a large amount of space and resources, grows out of proportion, and makes us sick.”
C. diff Infection Can Be Severe
Sotelo says the severity of a C. diff infection can range from mild to severe. When no treatments are effective and the infection continuously reoccurs, some patients must have their colons removed.
Rizzolo, now 79 years old, suffered serious impacts as a result of the infection. 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 said. “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
That’s when 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 patient to receive. The specimen is mixed with saline and strained to distill its good microorganisms.
“The transplant replenishes the bowel with friendly microorganisms that out-compete the C. diff and create a healthier environment of positive bacteria,” Sotelo said. “We use a company called Openbiome, which has very strict criteria to select and test the donors. It is stricter that the testing that we do for blood products.”
Rizzolo considered her options and evaluated the level of suffering she was enduring before deciding to pursue the advice of Sotelo and request a fecal transplant.
“I thought I was going to die, I really did.”
“I was all for it,” she said. “I thought what do I have to lose at this point – I’m not going anywhere; I’m going downhill at this point.”
“There are different ways to deliver the transplant,” said 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.”
“The procedure itself didn’t even take five minutes,” Rizzolo said. “It was smaller than a straw – he did the nasal approach directly into the stomach. There was no pain involved. It was over and done with. I said ‘are you ready’ and he said ‘we’re done!’”
“It’s a Miracle”
Within a week, Rizzolo’s constant stomach sickness and misery began to subside. "In one word, it’s a miracle. It’s a miracle,” Rizzolo repeated.
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 said with a tear in her eye. “Ambulance upon ambulance from the house. She couldn’t get up by herself. She was so weak. Now she’s back to being like herself.”
"In one word, it’s a miracle."
Rizzolo says she doesn’t know where she’d be without her family. “Well, this is my angel here,” she said as she gestured to Belli-Nelson. “Like when they say ‘it takes a village.’ It took a village for me. It was my family, who has been there from day one, and my doctors.”
Rizzolo says that she feels 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 this to see if I can help somebody else – even one person, if it will help them,” Rizzolo said. “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.”
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.
Baystate doctors have completed a few dozen fecal transplants this year, despite the fact that insurance companies typically do not pay for the procedure and the hospital absorbs the costs.
“If you think about the scientific thought process behind it, it really makes sense,” Belli-Nelson said. “Going back to homeopathic, the way our ancestors did.”
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 said. “I am so grateful that he was there when I needed him. I was one of the first few patients 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.