Skin too thin for a fistula?

John emailed me today:

Hello Greg,

800px-Schema_fistule_arterio-veineuse_-_AV_fistulaI found your Big D and Me blog when Googling “fistula thin skin”. Thank you for the thoughtful blogging about dialysis and your compassionate spirit reflected in your posts. If you don’t mind, I’m writing to ask your advice or for some of your knowledge. If you wish, I can re-post this on your blog site and you can reply there if you want this thread available to all.

My 81 year old mom has been on dialysis for 5 years in Memphis, Tennessee, USA. She began dialysis soon after heart surgery. To begin dialysis, she went through the usual process of a Permacath while building/growing a fistula in her left arm. The fistula performed well until last spring, when her fistula burst and hemorrhaged twice, each of which nearly killed her. The vascular surgeon opened the fistula site to rebuild but said the fistula was heavily ulcerated and unusable. (I suspect poor care of the fistula over time by medical staff, but that is in the past.)

We had an appointment with the vascular surgeon for her to have a vein mapping done in her other arm for a possible new fistula, but the port, which she had put in after the fistula burst, became infected and she became septic. She was taken to the hospital to have the infection treated with IV antibiotics, so she missed the vein mapping appointment. While in the hospital, the cardiologist and nephrologist said she was not a candidate for a new fistula because her skin is too thin and fragile.

While I believe it is certainly possible that her skin could be too fragile, it’s odd to me that the vascular surgeon, who examined the arm just a couple of weeks earlier, seemed encouraging about the possibility of a new fistula. (It’s hard to know who’s opinion to trust more. I value the cardiologist’s opinion least because he doesn’t deal with the mechanical aspects of a fistula and dialysis scenarios as much.)

Without a fistula, of course, a Permacath is the only other option, which I believe will likely become infected with time.

Question: Have you heard, in your experience, of age and/or skin condition being a factor in evaluating a fistula site, and then completely ruling out the possibility of a fistula?

If a port is going to be her only option, can you offer advice about avoiding infection and catching it early if it happens? (My understanding is that a port is always removed when there is an infection because a foreign body can harbor bacteria. Of course, infection and port removal mean yet more hospital stays and procedures.)

Part of the picture here is my mom’s quality of life. She is very sharp mentally and was walking on her walker a few weeks ago. I believe she could continue with a significant quality of life if she could remain infection free and dialyzing regularly without incident. But, with event after event (hemorrhages and infections), she has expressed an unwillingness to tolerate that for long, and I would not blame her.

Thanks for any advice or knowledge you may offer.

My initial response:

Hi John.  Thanks for your email.

I’m sorry to hear about your mother. It is an awful time for both of you.  Give me a couple of days to think and to ask around.  I’ll come back to you soon.

In the meantime, I’ll put up your question as a new post, so that others may help too.

Update:  We’ve had some great responses:

  • Henning, as usual, told it as it is:

….Hello Greg and John,

Unfortunately, the cardiologist and nephrologist are probably right. You do need a certain level of tissue above the fistula for it not to create trouble. On the other hand, I can’t be too deep either. The more shallow the fistula, the greater the risk of hemorrhage. (see the rest in his comment below)

  • Julie Tondello gave us the clinician’s viewpoint:

Hi Greg,

In our experience, the viability of creating a new fistula would generally be established through vein mapping and reviewed by a vascular surgeon and care by a vascular access nurse.

Many dialysis patients are in their 80’s and even 90’s have very fragile skin.

Avoiding infection of a perm cath needs to be the responsibility of nursing/ medical staff and the patient themselves. The incidence of infection will vary from clinic to clinic but a good clinic should have zero infections. Be scrupulous with hygiene is paramount. Many clinics use the principles of Aseptic Non-Touch Technique (ANTT) through the procedure of connection, disconnection and dressing changes.

Small measures but important, patient and nurse wear a mask when connecting/ disconnecting/dressing. Look for early signs of infection, inflammation, temperature, rigors. Change dressing weekly unless dressing compromised. Advise patient not to get permcath wet in shower or pool.

I hope this is of some help.

Regards, Julie

  • In another comment dynamicdialysis (below) suggested seeing a vascular surgeon vascular surgeon, and that fistulas  can be made in the leg.

Many thanks to all so far!

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