December 15th, 2009
05:49 PM ET

Landmark trauma surgery was a collaborative effort

By Val Willingham
CNN Medical Producer

On November 21, Senior Airman Tre Porfirio was struck in the gut by three high velocity bullets while serving in Afghanistan. Porfirio, from St. Mary's, Georgia, was seriously injured; his entire digestive system was in danger of shutting down. During two operations in combat hospitals, surgeons removed his gallbladder along with portions of his large and small intestines, part of his stomach and a large section of his pancreas.
Porfirio was flown back to the United States immediately after emergency surgery, and taken to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C.

Col. Craig Shriver, chief of general surgery at Walter Reed, knew he had to remove the airman's remaining pancreas, which was found to be damaged beyond repair. "The optimal procedure at this point was to remove his entire remaining pancreas to prevent further leakage of the pancreatic enzymes and control the bleeding, which could be fatal," said Shriver. "We knew that the procedure would lead to the most severe and life-threatening form of diabetes, which tends to be very brittle and difficult to control in this type of situation.”

In an effort to save Porfirio from severe diabetes, Shriver turned to other surgeons for suggestions. Dr. Rahul Jindal, a transplant surgeon also at Walter Reed, had training and experience in islet cell transplantation, which is considered the best hope for curing diabetes. In islet cell transplantation, the insulin-producing islets are taken from a donor pancreas, treated and then put in the patient's liver where they begin to produce insulin for the body, even if there is no pancreas. In this case, the islet cells would come from Porfirio's own pancreas.

"Isolation and purification of pancreatic islets is a very intricate procedure, which requires a specialized laboratory, and there are only a few such facilities in the United States," said Jindal.

But Jindal knew of the perfect facility for the job; he turned for help to the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. The director of the institute, Dr. Camillio Ricordi, developed the method for isolating the islet cells from the pancreas and was considered a pioneer in the field. Ricordi immediately agreed to help, noting that he would do "anything to help a wounded warrior."

Doctors at Walter Reed then proceeded to remove the remaining portion of Porfirio’s pancreas, packed it in ice and sent it to Miami.

On Thanksgiving Day, just five days after Porfirio's initial injury, the cell processing team at the Diabetes Research Institute spent six hours performing the islet cell isolation and purification procedure. "More than 220,000 purified islets were then suspended in a specialized cold solution and flown back to Walter Reed,” said Ricordi.

That afternoon, on that very same Thanksgiving Day, the islet cells were injected into Porfirio’s liver with Ricordi and his team coordinating the procedure with surgeons at Walter Reed via an Internet connection, a sort of high-tech telemedicine event.

In the three weeks since being wounded in Afghanistan, Porfirio has undergone 11 surgeries and, according to doctors, is "doing well." In a press conference held Tuesday at Walter Reed Medical Center, surgeons noted that there was evidence of the airman’s islet cells functioning in his liver less than one week after surgery; 15 days after the procedure, the transplanted islet cells were functioning in the normal range. His physicians say as time goes on, the islet cells in the liver will get stronger; when that happens, Porfirio's insulin requirement is expected to decrease. And although he'll still have a form of diabetes, the complication won't be as dangerous and he'll have a better quality of life.

Doctors from both the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine and surgeons at Walter Reed believe this transplantation is the first of its kind in a wounded soldier. They hope the success of the procedure will allow for more cases of islet cell transplantation in military personnel, as more of our fighting men and women return from war with injuries like those of Senior Airman Porfirio.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.