Kitchen appliance helps patients escape a lifetime of pain

Stephanie McGuire barely remembers a day without gut-wrenching pain.

“Honestly, I didn’t know a person could be in that much pain,” McGuire said.

Since third grade, that agony landed McGuire in the hospital countless times, and it went undiagnosed for years.

“There’s nothing they can do for chronic pancreatitis. I could do things on my end, like I stopped drinking, I started eating as little fat as possible,” McGuire said. “Honestly, none of that really helped. It still came back with vengeance every time.”

Finally, McGuire made the decision to come home to Wisconsin to take her chances on a unique procedure.

“If we would have waited much longer, I could have ended up having diabetes,” McGuire explained. “At that point I would have been no longer, I would have no longer been a candidate for the surgery.”

The surgery is called Total Pancreatectomy Auto Islet Transplantation, also known as TPAIT. UW Hospital is one of a few facilities in the country that is known for performing the eight-hour procedure aimed at isolating useable islets and reintroducing them to the body.

“It is art, really, to isolate islets in an efficient way,” UW surgeon Dr. Luis Fernandez said.

Islets are responsible for producing essential enzymes that aid in digestion.

“They went in and first took out the pancreas,” McGuire said. “And then he takes it to a lab and puts it in a blender.”

“And we do then is to infuse back the patient their own pancreas, now in the form of almost a milkshake if you were to call it,” Fernandez described.

Nancy Radke is a transplant coordinator at UW Hospital, and she has worked with numerous families through the surgery.

“Our goal is to see patients get to a solution a little bit earlier in the process so they’re not so debilitated, they are not on high doses of narcotics when they reach us,” Radke said.

Radke is honest with patients about the recovery.

“I tell them prepare that the Mac truck hit them, backed up and ran them over again,” Radke said. “That’s how I need them to be prepared for surgery.”

“You just feel like someone went into your stomach and took some organs out, you know?” McGuire said.

While the months of recovery can be tough, it’s nothing compared with a lifetime of pain, sometimes without the help of drugs.

McGuire said her condition was often misunderstood, and there were a number of instances where she was labeled a drug-seeker because of the amount of narcotics she needed to curb the pain and how frequently she needed it.

“Usually we get written off with that group, and that’s probably the most frustrating thing that can happen when you’re in that kind of pain,” McGuire said.

“If you were to leave it without treatment, not only is it an unbearable quality of life because they will have chronicity of pain,” Fernandez said. “The amount of narcotics that these patients take are absolutely barbaric.”

Now, McGuire doesn’t need the drugs. She’s monitoring her blood sugar regularly, but she has had no complications with diabetes.

McGuire is back in Colorado where she’s pursuing nursing school and enjoying life back on the slopes.

She no longer has to plan around the pain.

“That’s something, that’s a day I never thought would come,” McGuire said.

Without a pancreas, a life once full of questions now has one answer: yes.

“I have a whole new second chance now, which is amazing because I didn’t think I would ever get that,” McGuire said.