Lori Corradi, 57, endured painful pancreatitis for over 40 years.
"I had suffered all of my life but didn’t know until 2002 that I had a condition called pancreas divisum,” she says. "As I got older, the episodes got worse which meant multiple trips to the emergency room.”
Pancreas divisum is a birth defect in which parts of the pancreas fail to join together. A majority of people born with pancreas divisum will not have symptoms; however, a small group of people, such as Corradi, develop symptoms which commonly include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and chronic pancreatitis.
"I found a gastroenterologist, Dr. Stephen Martin, who finally did special tests and discovered the cause of my pain,” she says, adding what a tremendous relief it was to find someone who understood the real source of her years of discomfort. "He completed an endoscopic retrograde cholangiopancreatogram, or ERCP, (a test that combines the use of a flexible, lighted scope with X-ray pictures to examine the tubes that drain the pancreas) found a blockage and placed a stent which provided some temporary relief.”
The stents were replaced at six-month intervals and continued to provide temporary relief for several years, during which time Corradi and her husband relocated to South Carolina.
"When the pain persisted, I traveled back to see Dr. Martin, and he referred me to Dr. (Syed) Ahmad because he had worked with him in the past and knew that he would be able to help,” she says.
Ahmad agreed that the next step was a pancreaticoduodenectomy, or a Whipple procedure (named for the surgeon who first performed it). This procedure involves removal of the "head" of the pancreas next to the first part of the small intestine (duodenum). It also involves removal of the duodenum, a portion of the common bile duct, gallbladder and sometimes part of the stomach. Afterward, surgeons reconnect the remaining intestine, bile duct and pancreas. Corradi underwent this procedure in 2011.
The Whipple procedure provided significant relief for two years, but the remaining portion of Corradi’s pancreas continued to worsen and the pain started again.
"We continued the trips back to Cincinnati because Dr. Ahmad and his team were the most knowledgeable and experienced that we had met anywhere in the country,” Corradi says.
Ahmad, director of the University of Cincinnati (UC) Pancreatic Disease Center and a UC Health surgeon, recommended the removal of her pancreas with autologous islet cell transplantation, a highly specialized surgical procedure that can "cure” chronic pancreatitis.Only a half-dozen hospital systems in the United States offer this procedure.
"Patients with chronic pancreatitis are quite debilitated,” says Ahmad, a professor in the UC College of Medicine’s department of surgery, adding that many of them only have strong and sometimes addicting pain medicine to help soothe the discomfort.
Located behind the lower part of the stomach, the pancreas is a small organ that produces insulin to control blood sugar levels and enzymes that help the body process and use food. Insulin is produced in the pancreas by cells called the islets of Langerhans (Islets), which are made of several types of cells including insulin-producing beta cells. This hormone helps the body use glucose (sugar) for energy. If the body does not produce enough insulin or has trouble using it properly—causing glucose to build up in the blood—the patient will develop diabetes.
In the past, when the pancreas was removed by surgeons, the patient would be left a brittle diabetic. Brittle diabetics can have a difficult time controlling blood sugars, with blood sugars fluctuating between high and low levels. The advent of islet transplantation allows surgeons to remove the pancreas and possibly prevent or minimize diabetes.
During a pancreatectomy with autologous islet cell transplantation, the patient’s pancreas is completely removed. The organ is then taken to a laboratory where a specialized process is used to remove the islet cells. The cells are then purified, processed and transplanted in the patient’s liver. There, the islets take residence and function as they would have in the pancreas. Corradi's pancreas cells were processed in the Cellular Therapy lab at Hoxworth Blood Center, which has been managing this process for UC Health surgeons for many years.
"I felt I had no other choice, and I adored and trusted Dr. Ahmad so I went for it,” Corradi says, adding that she had the procedure done in April 2014.
Although she’s still recovering, Corradi says she can drive and do many things she wasn’t able to do previously; most importantly, she no longer experiences the horrific pain she once endured and is not diabetic.
"I’m now learning how to enjoy food,” she laughs. "This procedure and coming into contact with Dr. Ahmad is a miracle from God. I’m so thankful for him and the amazing team at UC. I wouldn’t let anyone else besides him do that procedure. In my eyes, he’s the best.”