February 6, 2014

Colorectal surgery helps swimmer return to the pool

A diagnosis of ulcerative colitis during his junior year of high school threatened to stop Ryan Burcham’s future as a competitive collegiate swimmer before it could start.

Ryan Burcham, center, returned to competitive swimming after colorectal surgery at Vanderbilt. With him at a recent follow-up appointment are, from left, Julie Hood, R.N., Rosie Moncibais, LPN, and his parents, Kevin and Susan Burcham. (photo by Emily Goad)

A diagnosis of ulcerative colitis during his junior year of high school threatened to stop Ryan Burcham’s future as a competitive collegiate swimmer before it could start.

Thanks to parents who advocated for a second opinion and a Vanderbilt colorectal surgeon who listened to Ryan’s dream, the elite swimmer is now not only back in the pool but weighing college swim team offers.

Ryan, now 17, and his father, Kevin Burcham, say the family immediately felt a connection to Alan Herline, M.D., associate professor of Surgery, himself a one-time college and professional athlete.

“I saw Dr. Herline talk to Ryan, but more than talk to Ryan, I saw him listen to Ryan,” Kevin Burcham said during an interview poolside while watching his son compete at a recent swim meet in Brentwood.

The journey to Vanderbilt and Herline wasn’t straightforward.

It began in 2012, when Ryan was a junior at Knoxville’s Bearden High School. He was on the fast track to becoming one of country’s elite swimmers, ranking nationally in the butterfly stroke.

What seemed at first like a stomach bug wouldn’t let up and Ryan found himself dealing with chronic pain, cramping, diarrhea and weight loss. One day, he passed out while he was driving and woke up with his car in the median. He was luckily unhurt, but his doctor sent him for a cardiac work-up to find the reason for the fainting.

The tests showed his heart to be healthy, so the doctors asked other questions and that’s when his GI symptoms were considered, along with some family history of which Ryan had been unaware.

His mother, Susan Burcham, had been diagnosed with ulcerative colitis 25 years earlier.
Ryan was quickly sent to a gastroenterologist, who determined that he also had the disease, which causes inflammation of the digestive tract. Management of the disease includes medication, diet changes and surgery.

Medication didn’t help Ryan’s symptoms. While doctors advocated continuing this approach — trying different medications to see if another one would work — Ryan felt the clock ticking on his dream.

His mother had treated her disease with surgery to remove her colon, a big step that had worked well for her.

So the family began looking for a second opinion.

A visit with a gastroenterologist at the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt led to a referral to Vanderbilt Colorectal Surgery, a group of surgeons with a special expertise in minimally invasive colorectal surgery.

“I knew we could help him,” Herline recalled. “My main goal was to get Ryan back in the pool and swimming again.”

Last March, Ryan underwent minimally invasive surgery to remove his colon. In May, a second surgery completed the treatment by connecting an internal pouch to his small intestine and eliminating the need for an external ileostomy bag.

Watching Ryan at a recent Southeastern Swimming competition at the Brentwood Sports Complex, one could only see the faintest of scars on his abdomen.

Now swimming at his very best, Ryan is fielding college swim team offers and is hopeful about an upcoming visit to the U.S. Naval Academy.

“Dr. Herline was able to relate to me,” Ryan said. “Sports are a big part of my life and I want to keep with it. He was able to see just how important it was to me that we have this surgery and I get my life back on track.”

To see video of Ryan discussing his experience and his swimming comeback after surgery, visit VanderbiltHealth.com/YouTube.