Short of breath and plagued by a constant cough, Goodyear resident and former Phoenix cop James Sandoval feared that he might have a serious lung disease – and his primary care doctor thought he did, too.
The experts at Norton Thoracic Institute, which is part of Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, examined Sandoval, a nonsmoker, and quickly determined the suspected cause of his lung disease: heartburn. More specifically, he had gastroesophageal reflux disease, commonly referred to as GERD. It causes frequent acid reflux, or heartburn, which occurs when acid or other stomach contents back up into the esophagus. Sometimes, these contents can be inhaled in to the lungs and can lead to a variety of lung problems including interstitial lung diseases.
This diagnosis came as a huge relief – but no surprise – to Sandoval, who retired from the Phoenix Police Department in 1999 after 25 years on the force.
“When you work in the police department, your eating habits are terrible,” Sandoval said. “I started to have really, really bad heartburn. I know a lot of officers who have heartburn. I didn’t realize it could cause lung problems.”
GERD is a growing health problem in the United States. It is estimated that more than 60 million Americans experience heartburn at least once a month and 15 million suffer from it daily.
GERD may be caused by heavy consumption of coffee and fried and fatty foods. Poor eating habits, including heavy late-night meals, also can contribute to the condition.
As a career cop, Sandoval checked all of those boxes.
“Police work leaves scars – not in your mind, but in your body,” Sandoval said.
Concerned about his health, Sandoval retired from the police department at 46 years old in 1999, hoping a new career would reduce stress. But in November 2016, Sandoval developed a bad cough. His primary doctor initially thought he might have idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a serious lung disease.
Sandoval sought a second opinion at Norton Thoracic Institute, home to the nation’s busiest lung transplant program and a multidisciplinary lung disease and esophageal team. He consulted Dr. Tanmay Panchabhai, a pulmonologist and associate director of the pulmonary fibrosis center at Norton Thoracic Institute.
After tests and a lung biopsy, Panchabhai determined that Sandoval had interstitial lung disease due to GERD, not idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Dr. Samad Hashimi, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Norton, performed a robotics procedure to reduce the reflux and block the stomach acids from seeping into his esophagus.
“While James’ case is complex, this is the kind of condition that we specialize in at Norton Thoracic Institute,” Panchabhai said.
“We want everyone to understand that GERD is a serious condition that can cause other health problems. When GERD is a cause of interstitial lung disease, it truly requires a multidisciplinary approach to differentiate it from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a deadly lung disease. A misdiagnosis can drastically give patients a worse prognosis for a medical issue that is truly fixable. We are delighted with James’ outcome.”
Sandoval saw immediate improvement after the surgery.
“Now that I’ve had the operation, the cough is 99 percent gone,” Sandoval said.
As part of his recovery, Sandoval is improving his diet and losing weight, dropping to 203 pounds from 250. He said he hopes his story will teach other police officers that heartburn can cause long-term health problems.
“If I was talking to a rookie who was in training, I would say pay attention to your body,” Sandoval said. “If you get any heartburn symptoms, don’t let them go untreated. Be aggressive in your treatments.”