A Tyler native, assisted by two other surgeons, recently hit a milestone when he successfully completed Mississippi’s first pancreas and kidney transplant.
Dr. Mark Earl, assistant professor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, graduated from Robert E. Lee High School in 1994 and then went on to Wash-ington and Lee University. He attended medical school at the Un-iversity of Texas Health Science Center — San An-tonio.
“What’s really unique about my opportunity, and what we’re doing here in Mississippi, is it’s very gratifying to take care of a person and make them feel better and change their life in a positive way,” he said.
Patients previously had to travel outside of Mississippi because there weren’t any transplant programs. In fact, the program at UMMC is the only one in the entire state, as well as the only academic medical hospital in the state.
There are thousands of pancreas and pancreas-kidney transplants performed across the country each year. But in Mississippi, they lacked a transplant program for decades.
A friend, a native Mississippian who trained with Earl, returned to the state to build a transplant system for a multi-organ transplant center. He recruited Earl, who was then on faculty at Oregon Health and Science University.
“Our goal has been to build a complete and high-functioning abdominal transplant program,” said Dr. Christopher Anderson, UMMC associate professor of transplant surgery and division chief of transplant and hepatobiliary surgery in a press release.
“The pancreas transplant program represents that last piece of the abdominal program and is the culmination of a lot of hard work from our transplant team and the entire institution. University Trans-plant can now serve the state’s kidney, liver and pancreas needs while keeping patients close to home.”
In the past year, they have restarted a liver transplant program, which had been not been active since the 1980s. They also increased the volume of the kidney transplant program and then created the pancreas transplant program.
The medical center’s new transplant program impacts not just local residents, but all citizens in the state. Earl notes that with a poor state and high rates of obesity and chronic illness, there certainly are challenges in his field.
“The challenge is education,” he said. “(Chronic illnesses) are generally in the poorest places. Mississippi is the poorest state per capita. Our mission is education and to teach them how to take care of themselves.”
This means being a part of public health initiatives, such as partnering with the Mississippi Kidney Foundation and the Mississippi Diabetes Foundation to help bring awareness and proper screening to people who need it.
Another health challenge for Mississippi is that doctors are attracted to the very rural, sparsely populated state.
“There aren’t enough doctors here,” Earl said. “One of the aims of Mississippi Medical Center is to train doctors for Mississippi.”
Earl was convinced of having a career in medicine as a high school student. His father, Dr. Gene Earl, and Dr. Pat Thomas, whom he followed one day a week during a career program in high school, influenced Earl.
He selected surgery because of its challenge and that it provides an immediate solution to a problem.
HELPING THE SEVERLY SICK
The December kidney-pancreas transplant was performed on a 49-year-old bodybuilder with type 1 diabetes. The double procedure ensures chronically ill patients get a fresh start.
“The reason we do it is for patients with type 1 diabetes who have developed end-stage renal disease secondary to their diabetes,” Earl said. “The reason we’re transplanting the pancreas is for the insulin.”
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease in which the person’s immune system has killed their insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The pancreas works but doesn’t make insulin and they may develop kidney failure. They need a kidney transplant to get off of dialysis.
“We can simultaneously give them a pancreas as well so that this pancreas now produces insulin,” Earl said. “They get off insulin, then the pancreas helps the kidney last longer as it prevents diabetic damage to the transplanted kidney.”