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Sick to the Stomach

Vision KL


As I sit down for this interview, Dr Ahmad Sudirman Mohd Salleh asks: “Have you heard of a condition called GERD?” I shake my head no. “Not many are aware of it, but hopefully after reading this article, they will be more enlightened,” he says with a smile.

Dr Ahmad Sudirman then launches straight into a disease that is increasingly spreading throughout the world: Gastro-Esophageal Reflux Disease, the condition where the stomach acid that helps digest food flows back into the esophagus.

The General Surgeon at KPJ Kajang Specialist Hospital, whose sub-specialty is the upper gastrointestinal (upper GI) tract, says GERD happens because the muscle that works as a one-way gate for food to pass from the esophagus to the stomach has become weak. The reflux causes an inflammation of the coverings at the lower end of the esophagus, and heartburn. “Unfortunately, a lot of people just assume they have gastric and proceed to take medication for gastric, which will either provide a temporary relief or not work at all,” explains Dr Ahmad Sudirman.

The Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia graduate, who has been practising medicine for 17 years, is trained in all kinds of surgery except gynaecology surgery. But what he enjoys most is being an Upper GI surgeon. “The Upper GI is my sub-specialty. It’s a passion of mine and I’ve given talks about it on TV to educate the masses. GI surgeons are quite rare in Malaysia; in fact there’s only a handful [in this specialty],” he shares.

GERD may not be a deadly disease, but it can complicate one’s daily life, making it very uncomfortable to perform everyday tasks. The cause of this disease can be linked to many things; straining your stomach after a heavy meal, constricting the stomach with tight belts and girdles, eating oily food, consuming alcohol, citrusy and spicy foods, chronic cough or vomiting and many more.

Identifying the disease is easy. The symptoms are heartburn, a sour, acid taste in the mouth and a stinging sensation in the chest that leads to aching. All these symptoms will occur after meals and if left untreated in the long run, will result in the patient having difficulty in swallowing or, worse, stomach cancer.

“The symptoms can make someone believe they have gastric,” says Dr Ahmad Sudirman. “When they think they have gastric, they just take some gastric tablets, which give a temporary cure or don’t help at all. The only way to determine if you really have GERD is to go for an endoscopy, which will allow the surgeon to see into the esophagus and stomach.

“Once I determine that it is GERD, I will start with medication. If it’s serious or continues, then I will advise patients that it’s better for them to have laparoscopic surgery, where I make small incisions in their stomach to perform the surgery.

“There are only a handful of doctors that are qualified to treat this disease and KPJ is one of the places patients can come to,” says Dr Ahmad Sudirman, who has been with KPJ for 3½ years. “With all our facilities, the patient will feel comfortable. Like the scoping for instance, I will sedate patients, so they won’t feel anything. And after surgery, I will also be keeping a constant watch on them to make sure they are recovering well. Patients have nothing to worry about,” he says confidently.

At the end of the day, the only thing that matters for Dr Ahmad Sudirman is that his patients are well taken care of and that they walk out of the hospital properly treated and healthy. “Yes, it can get stressful at times, especially if it’s an emergency case, but when I see my patient alive and healthy, it makes me happy and that’s the most rewarding part about my job. That I helped in saving someone’s life,” he says with a contented smile.

Dr Ahmad Sudirman Mohd Salleh, General and Upper GI Consultant Surgeon at KPJ Kajang Specialist Hospital, talks to Jivani Jeyasingam about the often-misdiagnosed reflux