Emily Harriger – Pancreatitis

Learn more about Emily's experience with Pancreatitis at Children's Hospital.

Sometimes it’s not as simple as a pill, a shot, or a cast. Sometimes, surviving a serious injury requires more of the victim, the family, and the health care providers. Sometimes it requires inner strength, faith, and time.

Emily Harriger was nearing her 11th birthday when she had her bicycle accident in early April 2000. Sliding on loose gravel caused her to fly over the handlebars. As she and the bike rolled several times, the handlebar repeatedly jabbed her in the abdomen. Emily’s pancreas was damaged during the accident—an injury not diagnosed until Emily was referred to UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh three weeks later.

At that point, a large cyst had developed, encapsulating enzymes that had leaked out of her pancreas. Because the cyst had a soft lining, immediate surgery would be dangerous. The waiting game began.

Surgery on Emily’s pancreas wouldn’t be able to take place for at least six weeks and, during that time, Emily couldn’t eat or drink anything. “On April 27, a Broviac tube was inserted to deliver nutrition directly into Emily’s bloodstream,” explains Roberta Harriger, Emily’s mother. “When they said I couldn’t eat, I was in tears,” Emily says, “That was the hardest thing ever.”

After several days, Emily and her family traveled to their home in Erie, Pa., to wait. The hiatus was short-lived, however. The cyst continued to grow and its pressure on Emily’s internal organs put her in great pain. They returned to UPMC Children’s Hospital May 9.

“All the doctors could do at that time was drain the cyst. Two liters of fluid were drained out of that cyst. And the cyst was so large the incision spanned Emily’s abdomen,” Roberta says. The waiting continued. Surgery on Emily’s pancreas was still too dangerous an option and Emily was still not allowed to eat or drink anything.

Roberta says by mid-May another cyst was developing. Doctors inserted a stent between Emily’s stomach and the cyst to keep it drained, and a tube was inserted to keep Emily’s stomach drained. In early June another tube was inserted through Emily's abdomen and liver to drain the cyst. June also brought several infections. As Emily turned 11 on June 8, her prognosis was still uncertain.

The pancreas is a vital organ. It secretes enzymes into our digestive tract that are important in the digestion of the food we eat. It also produces insulin and other hormones that regulate the sugar levels in our blood. You can't live without your pancreas.

“It was definitely trying,” reports Emily’s father, Randy Harriger. There were constant tests, X-rays and CAT scans, but “we never knew from one day to another what was going to be the result.” The distance between their home in Erie and Children’s in Pittsburgh proved a challenge, as did the waiting time, Randy explains.

“Commuting daily didn't work. Roberta left her job and stayed in Pittsburgh to be near Emily. I went down every opportunity I could. There were a lot of phone calls. But everyone rallied behind us. We were very fortunate to have good family support, support from our church family, and the doctors and nurses at Children’s were great.”

Caring and concern came from notable strangers, too. While at Children’s, Emily met former vice president Al Gore, and Pittsburgh Pirates Brian Giles and Todd Ritchie. “It was cool to meet all of those famous people,” she recalls, “I have autographs from all of them!”

Emily spent 42 days at Children’s before she—and all her tubes—went home for a week, still waiting to see if her abdominal swelling would go down. It didn’t, she developed pancreatitis. On June 29, doctors removed 80 percent of Emily's pancreas, as well as her whole spleen. But it wasn’t until August 4 that the final drain tubes and the Broviac tube came out—102 days since it went in—and Emily was allowed to eat normally again. “The first thing I ate was a pretzel that the nurse got from the [vending] machine,” she says, “Then we went to a restaurant and I had a salad.”

Emily lost 25 pounds during the ordeal. “Now she eats like she’s never going to eat again,” Roberta observes. Who can blame her? But, aside from having to go easy on fatty foods, Emily is virtually back to normal.

“It is truly a miracle,” Randy says. “If Emily’s body hadn’t formed the cysts to hold the leaking fluid, she likely would have died. Even though it wasn't fun, things did work out.” The continual monitoring of her condition, the ability to counteract problems as they arose and having the expertise available to finally resolve Emily’s predicament were extremely important. Having the inner strength and faith to stand up to time and survive the long wait were critical, too.