Getting down and dirty
Advancements in technology, science, and medicine over the past century have been truly incredible, and we’ve changed not only mankind but the entire world (often for the better) because of them.
Even without knowing it, we’ve all benefitted from these advancements as well. Sure, there are the obvious things like having the technology to write and read this article in the first place, most likely with the convenience of scrolling through your smartphone in just about any place that has wifi or other service. But what about all the once-fatal or paralyzing diseases we’ve eradicated? How often do you stop to think about those? The very fact that we’ve moved away from an overly-industrialized society means that the air you breathe is (hopefully) cleaner than it once was, and you probably don’t have to subject your body to harmful chemicals and environments on a daily basis.
Yet one ancient medical procedure is starting to gain some major popularity, especially in North America, and it might not be the type of “modern advance” you suspected. What is it, you ask? A poop transplant. First documented in 4th-century China as “yellow soup,” the transplant is being used more and more in the United States to cure a range of colon-related diseases. Now it’s saving lives.
Fecal Microbiota Transplant
Okay, so the technical name for the infamous poopy procedure is a fecal microbiota transplant (FMT), but the reality is the same: you put someone else’s feces into your own colon to help combat a wide array of problems and restore order to your own digestive system. Don’t fancy the idea of having someone else’s fecal matter shoved into your own butt? Don’t worry: There’s a freeze dried pill you can swallow instead!
But all jokes aside, FMT is a life-changing and even life-saving procedure that the medical community has embraced as a viable option for years, especially since the FDA began regulating human feces as an experimental drug in 2013.
According to the Fecal Transplant Foundation, “The purpose of fecal transplant is to replace good bacteria that has been killed or suppressed, usually by the use of antibiotics, causing bad bacteria, specifically Clostridium difficile, or C. diff., to over-populate the colon. This infection causes a condition called C. diff. colitis, resulting in often debilitating, sometimes fatal diarrhea [….] Fecal transplant has also had promising results with many other digestive or auto-immune diseases, including Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Crohn’s Disease, and Ulcerative Colitis. It has also been used around the world to treat other conditions, although more research in other areas is needed.”
Approximately 347,000 Americans were diagnosed with a C. diff. infection in 2012, and at least 14,000 of them died (other estimates range as high as 50,000).
My FMT Story
One woman shared her story of a life-saving fecal microbiota transplant, and she provides eye-opening insight into the terrifying-but-true ways that people can end up with the life-threatening infection that required the transplant in the first place.
This is “Nicole’s” story.
“In the spring of 2015, I had a knee surgery, [and] the incision ended up getting infected. The lab couldn’t get the bacteria from the infection to grow, so they treated me with broad-spectrum antibiotics.”
Unfortunately for Nicole, those very antibiotics inhibited the healthy bacteria in her colon and caused a C. diff. infection. Another common way it can spread, especially in hospitals, is when staff use antibacterial soaps instead of thorough hand washing while on the job.
Finding a Donor
Although the fecal microbiota transplant has shown an 85-90% success rate in cases of C. diff infections, it’s not yet widely accepted, and even where doctors or hospitals will perform the procedure, most insurance plans won’t cover it.
But even if you overcome these hurdles, find a doctor who will do the FMT and insurance to help pay for it, your biggest challenge might be finding a donor. This is a highly-regulated and important step in the process because you need to make sure you donor has a healthy colon and is compatible with your own system. Furthermore, some evidence point towards the recipient taking on traits of their donor’s system after the procedure, including appetite, weight loss/gain, and gassiness. It’s like gaining a little part of their soul.
“There’s only one [feces bank] in the United States: OpenBiome,” explained Nicole. “Unfortunately, my hospital didn’t work with them.” Instead, she had to go through a lengthy screening process to find a proper donor, who would have to bring the feces in person. Her boyfriend said no, and her family lived too far away. She wondered, “Should I just ask someone who I’m not close to so I never have to see them again? Should I offer to pay the person? How much do you pay for poop?”
Luckily, her best friend was up to do the deed. Here’s what happened next.