A large disc protrusion rendered Cory Olson immobile with excruciating pain a few years ago until he had back surgery.
But several days of misery followed his surgery, too, as he learned the hard way which pain medications his body couldn’t tolerate.
That gives the Sanford Health physician assistant and physical therapist a personal reason to recommend the Sanford Chip DNA test to anyone. If the test had been available before Olson’s surgery, his doctor would have known to prescribe something else.
The Sanford Chip test is simply a blood sample analyzed to provide insights into two areas: pharmacogenetics, or how your body responds to certain drugs, and your predisposition to certain inherited conditions.
Spinning, then heaving
When Olson went home after the surgery, he took the Tramadol he was prescribed. A spinning sensation soon confined him to the bathroom floor, “completely a mess,” he said.
“Are you OK? Are you going to make it?” his wife, Sherry, asked when she checked on him.
After a couple of hours, he was able to make it to bed. His wife called for an alternative medication, so he then tried hydrocodone in the prescribed dosage. After the first day’s worth of that, he had a new problem: vomiting.
“I’m sitting there, if you could imagine, with stitches in my back from my surgery, and you know how you hunch over and dry heave? I did that for 18 hours straight,” Olson recalled.
When Olson eventually did take the Sanford Chip test, he wasn’t surprised with the results. They showed an increased response, or “ultra fast metabolizer,” for pain medications Tramadol and codeine, with potentially impacted medications being opiates. The results recommended considering an alternative.
“That information alone, just that little bit about medication from a patient standpoint, would have saved me about two and a half to three days’ worth of misery in bed, just being sick the whole time,” Olson said.
When he later had to have a knee scoped, his doctor knew to prescribe a pain medication producing less nausea. It worked far better for Olson.
Genetic ‘knowledge is power’
In Olson’s work at the Sanford Spine Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, he sees a lot of patients with back problems. So he’s well able to relate and understand what many of them are going through.
And he appreciates how the Sanford Chip test can add to the knowledge about people’s health.
“We’re here to help, and knowledge is power,” Olson said. He gives patients information to help them make educated decisions about their health care. And the Sanford Chip test can serve another source of information.
Even if patients and providers have more questions than answers, Olson said, “more information will help.”
So when, for example, a provider is considering what medication to prescribe, knowing what to avoid matters. “That little bit of information can change how you treat that patient, how that patient feels, that patient’s outlook on their appointments,” Olson said.
Olson appreciates the efforts of Sanford Imagenetics, which developed the Sanford Chip test and aims to integrate genetics into primary care. Patients and their providers benefit as genetics expands from the laboratory into the exam room.
Olson has a particularly powerful personal reason to support advancements in genetics research as well.
A few days after Olson and his wife had brought their newborn son home from the hospital, they received an urgent call. Late on a Saturday night, they learned that newborn screening tests had revealed he had a rare genetic disorder. He needed to come in right away the next morning to start treatment.
Son has PKU genetic disorder
In phenylketonuria, or PKU, the enzyme that’s supposed to break down the amino acid phenylalanine is missing or improperly functioning. Since phenylalanine is found in all proteins, a normal diet would cause a toxic buildup of the amino acid and lead to irreversible damage to a child’s brain and cognitive abilities.
Before PKU testing began in the U.S. less than 60 years ago, parents had no idea if their newborn was the one in 15,000 or 20,000 to have the disease. But the children who did have it developed a severe intellectual disability.
The shock that their baby had PKU left Olson and his wife in tears, but early intervention has led to a wonderful outcome for their now-10-year-old.
“On the fifth day, at that time, he was the fastest-treated kid at Sanford,” Olson said of Sanford Children’s Hospital. At 5 days old, his phenylalanine level was 28 mg/dL, far above the normal 4-6 mg/dL range, he added.
To keep levels normal all of his life, he must stick to a low-protein diet that excludes meats, dairy products and grains. He can eat fruits and vegetables along with a medical phenylalanine-free protein drink.
“When we get that call and come in, the one thing that went through my head is that I want my kid to be smart. I want him to be able to flourish in society,” Olson said.
“You see him, you’d never know a difference. The kid is very athletic, extremely smart.”
Importance of genetic testing
PKU is an autosomal recessive genetic condition, so both parents must be carriers for it. Cory and Sherry Olson have three other children who do not have PKU. However, they each have a two-thirds chance of being a carrier. And thanks to genetic testing, they will be able to determine whether they are carriers before they have children of their own.
“There’s a huge component in our lives that genetics has affected,” Olson said.
And that’s why, as a parent, patient and provider, he’s such an advocate for the Sanford Imagenetics program and genetics’ role in health care.
He has a thriving son.
He gradually regained his back strength with new knowledge about his own DNA.
And he’s excited about the potential for providers to help their patients even more.
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