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Caitlin Young was vibrant and healthy—excelling in her career, enjoying married life and traveling with her husband, Mike. Life was good. But at age 31, Caitlin started experiencing chronic pain whenever she ate or exercised. She could barely digest food.

The half dozen doctors she saw said it was acid reflux—uncomfortable but something they said she could live with. Except Caitlin didn’t want to live with it. A few bites or sips of any food or drink or any type of exercise caused excruciating pain.

A doctor in Florida, where she lived, eventually suggested a type of imaging that looks at the body’s blood vessels. That test, along with a mesenteric vascular ultrasound, confirmed that she had a rare disease: Median Arcuate Ligament Syndrome (MALS). The relief of a diagnosis, though, soon turned to disappointment.

Not only did most doctors in Florida not know about MALS, they also didn’t offer any surgical options that were minimally invasive. So Caitlin found a MALS Pals Facebook support group where a specific surgeon’s name kept being mentioned: MetroHealth’s Kevin El-Hayek, who specializes in minimally invasive surgery for gastrointestinal diseases such as MALS.

Despite being 1,000+ miles away in Cleveland, Caitlin sent him her CT scans and other imaging and scheduled a virtual video appointment. He arranged for her to have a celiac plexus block, a test that numbs the nerves around the median arcuate ligament to see if surgery for MALS might be successful.

The celiac plexus block test allowed Caitlin to temporarily eat without pain for the first time in a year and a half. She and Mike went out for burgers, and she finished hers in one sitting. An awesome feat for someone who had lost more than 50 pounds in 18 months!

Four weeks later, Caitlin arrived in Cleveland for surgery. Dr. El-Hayek had high hopes for Caitlin’s outcome. During the three-hour robotic-assisted surgery, Dr. El-Hayek divided the median arcuate ligament and removed some of the nerves around her celiac artery. He now uses this robotic-assisted approach—which results in several small incisions and a quick recovery time—exclusively for this type of surgery.

For the first couple of days after the surgery, Caitlin didn’t stray too far from the foods she had tolerated for the past 18 months. But on day three, she had the all-clear to eat anything she wanted. She chose a steak sandwich—and ate the whole thing in one sitting. On Thanksgiving Day, when Caitlin and Mike returned home to Florida, she ate a burger. A few weeks after the surgery, Caitlin had a repeat vascular ultrasound. It confirmed that the surgery was successful.

“Eating-wise, I’m completely back to normal,” she says. She’s back to eating spicy foods, citrus fruits, pretty much anything she wants.

In addition to the overall great care she received at MetroHealth, Caitlin says she felt seen and heard by Dr. El-Hayek. Prior to her surgery, “it was a mental struggle every day. I would have such anxiety going to the doctor because I was discredited.

Dr. El-Hayek understood what was going on and he was compassionate. He’s just an all-around amazing person, an amazing doctor.”