“Four years ago I was a tall, thin, former Division I athlete with a healthy lifestyle who was getting really sick,” says Liz Stutzmann, who lives in Garden City, New York. “I was gaining unusual weight and feeling sluggish and bloated. After an endoscopy and other tests I was told to exercise more and change my diet. I know my body. Eating more lettuce wasn’t going to help.”
After struggling with recurring illness for two years, Stutzmann became, as she describes, “ragingly sick.” She spent 8 days in the intensive care unit (ICU) of her local hospital on Long Island. “Things calmed down,” says Stutzmann. “I was diagnosed with pancreatitis. Doctors told me my episode would hopefully be the only one, but no one really listened to my previous two years of symptoms.”
Knowing in “her gut” that her gut was in trouble, Stutzmann went looking for better answers. After doctors in New York determined she didn’t have cancer, Stutzmann asked them for a recommendation for advanced pancreatitis treatment. Their answer was Timothy Gardner, MD, medical director for Pancreatic Diseases and Islet Cell Transplant at Dartmouth Health.
Gardner leads Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center’s (DHMC’s) total pancreatectomy with islet auto transplantation team with Kerrington D. Smith, MD, Surgical and Islet Lab director; Sushela S. Chaidarun, MD, PhD, Endocrinology; Stuart R. Gordon, MD, Gastroenterology and Hepatology; Jessica K. Salwen-Deremer, PhD, Psychiatry; Mary Wood, RN, MS, CDE, diabetes clinical nurse specialist; Catherine Giguere-Rick, RD, certified nutrition support clinician; and Amy Rogers, RN, nurse coordinator; round out the team to offer a coordinated approach to the complex procedure.
“When a non-cancerous pancreas is removed from a patient, it is typically discarded,” says Gardner. “Since the pancreas produces insulin, the hormone needed to regulate the body’s use of sugar, a patient who loses their pancreas develops diabetes. By removing the diseased pancreas, harvesting the islet cells that produce insulin, and transplanting those cells into the liver, we can teach the liver to produce insulin and save the patient from a future with diabetes.”
DHMC was the first medical center in New England to offer this type of treatment and has performed the procedure more than 80 times. Less than 20 U.S. medical centers perform total pancreatectomy with islet auto transplantation and DHMC is one of only two that perform the entire 8 to 10 hour surgery and transplant in at one time.
Otherwise healthy and strong, young but with a severely diseased pancreas, Stutzmann was a good candidate for the complex procedure, “Liz’s surgery was a bit easier in that we were able to leave a portion of the pancreas,” says Smith. “But scar tissue left by a previous procedure and pancreatitis made her case tough.”
After Stutzmann’s pancreas was partially removed, islet cells were extracted right in the operating room and prepared for transplant. “In pancreatitis, islet cells are innocent bystanders,” says Smith. “It’s great that we can save them for the patient to allow full recovery without risk of diabetes.”
After surgery, Stutzmann spent a week at DHMC before returning home where she continues to recuperate. “Everyone on the team listened to my concerns and appreciated my need to understand everything,” says Stutzmann. “Dr. Gardner and Dr. Smith still answer all my texts. Many of the nurses became my friends. They distracted me when I got nervous and cheered me on when I was taking my first walks after surgery.”
“When people heard that was I going DHMC they said, ‘You’ll have to drive 4 and a half hours,” says Stutzmann. “It was a long drive, but the team at DHMC saved my life.”