Life had been "rolling merrily along" for Susan Schmaeling, who had never had any serious health problems. Then, at age 46, she suddenly started to have painful and constant heartburn. She stopped eating some of her favorite foods and gobbled heartburn medication, but nothing seemed to relieve her gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). A test revealed that she had a hiatal hernia, a condition in which a bit of the stomach bulges upward into the chest cavity. Schmaeling researched her surgical options and chose a procedure in which pleats are sewn into the lower esophageal sphincter, the valve between the esophagus and stomach. Schmaeling says the surgery was an "incredible success." Now 47, Schmaeling is GERD-free and lives in Houston, where she works in public relations and marketing for nonprofits and cultural organizations.

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In October 2006, I started having constant heartburn, including a bile taste in my mouth and a burning sensation in my chest. I had no idea what was causing it or why it came on so suddenly. My doctor did a few tests and told me to try an over-the-counter heartburn remedy. It helped control the acid reflux pain a little bit, so I figured that would be my solution.

But my heartburn continued to get worse. I tried eliminating everything from my diet that could possibly be a trigger. I stopped eating tomatoes and oranges, and then cut out the glass of wine I occasionally had with dinner. I even skipped my regular coffee and I started drinking a coffee substitute made from grain that I ordered online. I started eating my dinner before 6 p.m. so I wouldn't have heartburn that woke me up at night, and I ate bland meals like plain grilled chicken and toast. I tried sleeping with my bed elevated to relieve the nighttime heartburn. Nothing helped.

I finally went back to my doctor, who recommended I see a specialist. The specialist performed an endoscopy, an examination of the stomach with a lighted instrument, which showed that I had a 1 cm hiatal hernia. This meant that a part of my stomach was bulging upward into my chest cavity in my gastroesophageal area, which was causing acid reflux. The diagnosis made me feel a little better because it confirmed that I definitely had GERD.
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My doctor at first mentioned it could be irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and I was really hoping it wasn't IBS. Doctors rarely recommend a surgical repair of a hiatal hernia; instead they suggest you treat the symptoms of acid reflux.

I started taking prescription proton-pump inhibitors, which are medications that reduce the amount of acid in the stomach. It felt like I tried every one on the market, and nothing helped. My condition had escalated to the point that I would have acid reflux when I drank a glass of water.

GERD surgery worked for me
I began researching GERD surgery and found there was a doctor here in Houston who was doing a procedure called plication. In plication, pleats are used to strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter, the valve between the esophagus and stomach. This helps keep stomach acid out of the esophagus.

My insurance company considers plication to be experimental, so I knew it wouldn't be covered. But I decided to find out if I could be a candidate for the operation anyway. I knew there was risks involved—I could have gone through the whole procedure and the symptoms could stay the same—but I was at the point that I was so miserable I was willing to take that risk.

I did some online research looking for people who had undergone plication surgery. I found one woman whose GERD caused her to hiccup nonstop whenever she ate anything. On the day of one of her children's weddings she didn't eat all day so she wouldn't hiccup! But she had the procedure and was completely cured, so that gave me more courage to go ahead with my own plication.

I had the procedure, which was performed during an endoscopy (I didn't have any incisions), in November 2007. It was an incredible success. I have had no problems related to GERD since. It has absolutely changed my life. I could have had my insurance company pay for stomach acid—suppressing drugs for the rest of my life, but I couldn't keep going with my life like that—I was that miserable. It was approximately $4,000 out of pocket for my family but, for me, it is the best money I have ever spent.

Having this surgery gave me my back a normal life. I'm still careful about what I eat, but I'm so glad to have tomatoes back in my diet—especially being of Sicilian descent—and I can happily enjoy a good cup of coffee! I have not had any reflux symptoms since the plication.

It was a gamble because some people have the surgery and see no benefit, but I am now 100% cured. I couldn't feel luckier.