When Thavam Thambi-Pillai, M.D., arrived in Dayton in the spring of 2006, transplant surgery in the area was something of an open secret. Surgeons had been performing kidney transplants at Miami Valley Hospital (MVH) for more than 30 years, and dozens of gravely ill patients were benefitting from the procedure each year.
Even so, he said, most people in the area—including many physicians and staff members at the hospital—were not aware that transplant surgery was offered in the region. Thambi-Pillai, now an assistant professor of surgery with the medical school and associate director of transplantation for the hospital, came to Dayton to change that fact.
More specifically, he hoped to link the hospital’s transplantation services to the medical school in order to create a collaborative academic transplant center.
The center, Thambi-Pillai explained, serves to bring together resources from across the community at a single site.
“Patients just have to come to one place to see their surgeon, their nephrologist, their social worker, their dietician, and whoever else they need to see,” he said. “That’s the model we want to grow, in a very comprehensive manner.”
In just over three years, the center has already made much progress. In 2009, transplant surgeons at MVH performed 42 kidney transplants, an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2006. In addition, living donor transplants, which are associated with much better patient outcomes, surged to 13 in 2009, the highest level in the hospital’s history and a 300 percent increase over the previous year. Overall outcomes for patients are on par with national averages, but the wait time for a transplant in Dayton is significantly shorter. This combination has allowed the center to evolve into a regional transplant center serving 17 counties. It has also led patients from as far away as Philadelphia to register with the center and travel here to undergo surgery when a donor organ becomes available.
“We have come a long way,” Thambi-Pillai said, “and still there is room to grow and improve. We have an excellent foundation now to build on.”
While the hospital is the only one in the Dayton region certified as a transplant center by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), it is approved solely for kidney transplants.
In 2010, Thambi-Pillai hopes the center will gain UNOS certification to offer pancreas transplants for patients with diabetes, and he is confident that approval for other organs and procedures will eventually follow.
The integration of an academic component also creates new clinical research opportunities and supports the education of medical students and surgical residents. Building on these advantages, Thambi-Pillai hopes to establish a dedicated fellowship in transplant surgery and to lay the groundwork for future clinical trials and basic scientific research.
“Transplant is a field where you can see the bench research being translated to clinical practice very quickly,” he said. “It’s always exciting seeing what you did in the lab three years ago helping your patients now.”
The need to raise awareness, of the center and about transplantation and organ donation in general, is never far from his thoughts.
“That’s our job in the transplant community,” he said. “To educate the public.”
“The only good thing that can come out of death,” he often says, “is organ donation. I always tell my patients who thank me, ‘I am only one of the faces you see. You should be thankful to the donor families who made this a reality for you.’ Some family, in their grief, has done something wonderful in helping them.” VS