A Colorado woman never imagined it would take 30 years to find a cure for her cough. But three decades passed and nearly 50 doctors later and she was still coughing…uncontrollably.
Now, thanks to a research scientist who appealed to his physician colleagues for help on a forum, Margaret Folsom finally found some relief at HealthONE’s Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver.
“A roundtable discussion about my condition had come up at the hospital where I was being treated,” says Folsom, who had all but resigned to live with her cough, “And a gastroenterologist, who was also a researcher, said he wanted to meet me, biopsy my throat and study it. So, I said, sure, whatever.”
Folsom says her doctors told her there was nothing else they could do. She had accepted it.
“I had exhausted every avenue in a 30-year search to find answers. I even texted my family and said ‘I can’t do this anymore. All of these treatments and dead ends’…I said, ‘I’m just going to live it out.’”
Thankfully, Folsom went through with the procedure because the doctor discovered what no one else had in 30 years – stomach tissue at the top of her esophagus, which was causing her to essentially inhale stomach acid and fluid. The only problem, he couldn’t treat it and no one else at that hospital could either.
“He said he was going to put it out on a forum and we’d just have to wait to see if anyone responded,” Folsom recalls. “About one week later, Dr. (Edward) Hepworth reached out and said he knew exactly what to do.”
They scheduled an appointment, and she and her husband made the 6 ½ hour drive to Denver for what she would describe as “one last shot”.
“I was so skeptical. I thought it would just be another wild goose chase with some guy with a crazy idea of what this was,” she said.
Much to her surprise, Dr. Hepworth, an ear, nose and throat specialist, knew exactly what the problem was, the symptoms she had been experiencing and, most importantly, how to treat it.
“It had been my experience that every time I saw a new doctor, I had to try to explain this very complicated journey,” Folsom said. “He is the only doctor that I’ve ever gone to throughout this entire experience where I didn’t have to say a word.”
“While only 3-5 percent of adults are found to have small patches of acid and digestive enzyme secreting patches in the upper esophagus, my experience with diagnosing and treating these cases numbers into the hundreds. When she presented with a chronic cough and upper airway or pulmonary problems, I knew there was a strong possibility that this was the case,” Dr. Hepworth said.
Dr. Hepworth also found that a botched surgery (stomach wrap) in 2008 that Folsom underwent to remedy the cough caused another problem in her stomach. So, he arranged for her to see Dr. Anthony Canfield, medical director at the center for robotic surgery at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s.
“Despite having a stomach wrap, she continued to suffer because the acid was being produced in the upper part of her esophagus. We removed the overly tight wrap using the da Vinci robot (laparoscopic Nissen fundoplication) so she was able to swallow while Dr. Hepworth destroyed the gastric tissue in her esophagus,” Dr. Canfield added.
From an asthma diagnosis to a psychological cough and everything in between – steroid inhalers, injections for allergic asthma, anti-epileptic and pain medication, surgery, and more – together, Dr. Hepworth and Dr. Canfield performed two separate operations simultaneously that would give Folsom her life back.
Stunned by the recent turn of events and this new lease on life, Folsom just had one question – how?
“In the 15 minutes I spent with you, you put together that which scores of doctors hadn’t been able to,” Folsom recalls saying to Dr. Hepworth. “It was so much bigger than this stomach tissue in my throat, which happened when I was in embryo. I said, ‘how did you know that?’”
Dr. Hepworth told her, “Before I was a doctor, I was an aerospace engineer. Do you remember the space shuttle that crashed?” he asked. “My job was to take the little pieces that came back down to earth and figure out what happened. You know what was missing in that job? (Folsom pointed between herself and him.) That’s what made me take those gifts and turn it into being a surgeon and a physician.”
Folsom, who previously had up to one minute – on a good day five – before she unleashed a series of loud, violent coughs, only coughed once during our 45-minute conversation. So, when asked what she’d being doing since her surgery, the answer was simple: talking.
“I could never have a full conversation. I only texted,” she said. “So, just talking to my family and people…like I sat on the patio with my neighbor and we just talked. It was a beautiful thing.”
Folsom also plans to go paddle-boarding when she’s strong enough. “I bought a paddle board before my surgery and that was my goal. And I can’t wait to be able to cross country ski. Even if I have to strap oxygen on to do it, I’m going.”
After thirty years of chronic condition and a life that “had dwindled into nothing,” Folsom can finally say: Dear 1987, you can have your cough back.
Hear Folsom’s cough and learn more of her story on ABC 7 News Denver here. Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver is an affiliate of HCA Healthcare. Photos of Margaret Folsom with family and friends throughout her 30-year journey for a cure can be found below.
Current day: After attending her first yoga class in years!