• Cardiology Patient Stories

    Not Just a Hernia: Digging Deeper

The motto for the City of Barron, Wisconsin, is: "Be kind. Be strong. Be together. Be Barron." Nathan Emmons has embraced this motto in all that he does.

Over the span of 44 years, he has focused on bringing people together and caring for the community. He is a 17-year veteran of the Barron Police Department and founded the city's K9 program. Before that, he was a pastor for 27 years, counseling families during times of joy and crisis.

While he was focusing on the community's heart, his own heart was hiding a secret, life-threatening condition.

Concerning symptoms

In 2016, Nathan was working a night shift at the police department when he began experiencing chest pain. An otherwise healthy person, he was alarmed and went to the Emergency Department at Mayo Clinic Health System in Barron. The results from an echocardiogram and blood work were normal, and he was sent home to recover.

Nathan continued to have sporadic periods of chest pain, nausea and vomiting after periods of physical exertion.

"I would have chest pain and puking, but then it would be fine," he says. "I found that if I drank water, it would relieve my symptoms. So I just carried water with me all the time."

Hernia discovery

While he was controlling most of his symptoms, Nathan really wanted to get to the root of the problem. In 2019, Brad Kruger, a Family Medicine physician assistant and Nathan's primary care provider, referred him to Gastroenterology for additional testing.

An endoscopy showed that Nathan had a hiatal hernia. This occurs when the upper part of the stomach budges through the large muscle separating the abdomen and chest.

"Hiatal hernias are common in Western countries. The frequency of hiatal hernias increases with age from 10% in patients younger than 40 to 70% in patients older than 70 years. However, only 9% have symptoms," says Christian Mendez, M.D., a gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Barron and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. "Large hiatal hernia can cause heartburn, regurgitation of food or liquids into the mouth, difficulty swallowing, chest or abdominal discomfort, and early satiety."

Over time, Nathan's symptoms became more regular, and drinking water no longer provided relief.

"By the end of 2021, it was taking less effort to cause symptoms," he says. "Even brushing snow off the car or running the K9 dog around cars for drug sniffs triggered chest pain and vomiting," Nathan says. "I always had to carry a bottle of water with me."

In January, Nathan decided to have Dr. Mendez reevaluate his hernia. After a repeat endoscopy, Dr. Mendez confirmed that Nathan had a small hiatal hernia and inflammation of the stomach lining.

These conditions explained Nathan's nausea and vomiting but not his chest pain. Dr. Mendez wanted to dig deeper.

This article first appeared on the Mayo Clinic Health System blog. You can read the rest of the story there.