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Doctors perform NM’s first pancreas transplant

Dr, Hannah Choate

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The pancreas produces the insulin vital to processing carbohydrates the body needs for energy and when it doesn’t work properly, serious things like kidney failure can develop.

Fortunately for those who live with that condition – mostly patients with Type 1 diabetes – it is possible to get a functioning pancreas through transplant surgery.

Until recently, however, patients needing a pancreas transplant had to travel out of state for the surgery.

Last year, a medical team with Presbyterian Healthcare Services successfully performed the first pancreas transplant in New Mexico.

“It’s not a new procedure nationally, but it’s new to New Mexico,” said Dr. Hannah Choate, transplant surgical director for Presbyterian.

Presbyterian has been performing kidney transplant surgeries for several years. Choate said it took about two years to develop the pancreas transplant program, and obtain the required certifications from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Before launching this program, Choate said they had to refer patients out of state.

The Presbyterian patient who had the pancreas transplant received a kidney at the same time. In about 80 percent of cases, patients need both organs, Choate said. The organs must be recovered from a donor who has recently passed away.

“It’s hard to find a perfect donor. We’re very, very careful and particular about the type of donor used for a kidney and pancreas transplant because they have to be very young and healthy,” Choate said.

In a small number of cases, a pancreas can be transplanted after a patient has already had a kidney transplant. In that situation, they would have organs from two donors. A patient with Type 1 diabetes might also just get a pancreas if they don’t have kidney failure.

All transplant surgeries present significant risks for the patient. Choate said they have to screen patients carefully to be sure the individual will be a good fit. She estimates Presbyterian will likely perform only two or three pancreas transplants annually.

“This surgery is more for younger patients who present less risk,” she said.

Patients who have pancreatic cancer will not be candidates for this surgery. She said the imuno-suppression drugs they have to use to prevent the body rejecting the transplanted organ can be dangerous for cancer patients.

Wayne Dunlap, executive director of New Mexico Donor Services, is excited about the pancreas transplant program. The nonprofit works with donors and their families. Its services include helping to find suitable recipients, and coordinating surgical recovery of and transportation of organs.

“This truly is a great thing for the state of New Mexico,” Dunlap said.