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Clinical Case Study
Booze Blues: A Case Study on the Liver

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Peggy Fender is well known to the emergency department (ED) staff. She's a 59-year-old woman whose visit today is similar to her frequent visits in the past. She arrives in the afternoon, appearing intoxicated and complaining of abdominal pain, particularly in the right upper quadrant (RUQ) of her abdominopelvic cavity. "Another Fender bender," a nearby nurse whispers to Tim, the new physician assistant (PA) who is due to examine Mrs. Fender.

Tim proceeds with his physical examination. Mrs. Fender appears emaciated with bruising of various ages on her arms, legs, and face. She is jaundiced (yellow-skinned) and has the strong smell of alcohol on her breath. Tim palpates the inferior border of her liver, which is hard and enlarged; Mrs. Fender moans with pain. Her entire abdomen is ascitic (swollen and fluid-filled). Mrs. Fender is not entirely coherent; she knows where she is and who she is, but is unable to relate anything about her present illness except a slurred, "My stomach hurts; quit poking it, you idiot!" Her coordination is poor when she attempts to sit or stand. She becomes annoyed and indignant when Tim asks her how much alcohol she's had to drink today even though she is obviously inebriated.

Tim reviews her blood tests, which reveal elevated blood transaminases (liver enzymes), high blood glucose (hyperglycemia), and prolonged prothrombin time (PT — slowed clotting time). Based on her history, and present findings, Tim diagnoses Mrs. Fender with alcoholic cirrhosis, which is the result of chronic inflammation of the liver from heavy, consistent alcohol ingestion. If alcohol abuse continues long-term, it leads to fat accumulation in the liver, followed by fibrosis and severe liver dysfunction.

Short Answer Questions

  1. Besides the nurse's "bender" comment, and Mrs. Fender's social history, Tim suspects alcohol abuse based on many of his physical exam findings. Name at least three signs and/or symptoms that point to alcoholism, and briefly explain why each sign/symptom may occur.
  2. The liver is known for its ability to remove certain toxins from the blood. It can perform this function because its cells, or hepatocytes, contain large quantities of lysosomes and peroxisomes, and also have an extensive smooth endoplasmic reticulum. Briefly describe how these three organelles contribute to this major function of the liver.
  3. Mrs. Fender's jaundice is caused by the accumulation of bilirubin in her blood and tissues. What is the normal fate of bilirubin, and what role does the liver play? Explain how Mrs. Fender's cirrhosis is related to her jaundice.
  4. Mrs. Fender's prolonged clotting times and excessive bruising are related. Again, referring to normal physiological functioning of the liver, why do these two things happen when alcohol damages hepatocytes?
  5. The liver has a portal vein as well as a hepatic vein. It also has unique exchange blood vessels similar to capillaries, called "sinusoids." How do these unique structures determine the function of the organ?
  6. Cirrhosis leads to scarring and increased hydrostatic pressure in the hepatic portal vein. Explain why this increased venous pressure causes net filtration to increase in the hepatic capillaries, leading to ascites (swollen and fluid-filled interstitial space of the abdomen).
  7. Explain why the underproduction of albumin by a cirrhotic liver contributes to excessive filtration, which leads to ascites. Refer again to the forces that determine net filtration pressure in the hepatic capillaries, and to the function of albumins.

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