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Opera singer pain free for the first time in years thanks to pancreatitis procedure

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Jolie Dunham felt like she’d lost her voice.

Over four years she had been hospitalized nearly 10 times, suffering from chronic pain. The exact cause and a solution eluded teams of doctors in her home state of New York and surrounding areas. Dunham, a high school vocal music teacher and a classically trained opera singer from Arlington, New York, can remember the exact day the pain began. And how it intensified over time. Her life of music and performance was virtually silenced.

“The pancreas pain took the joy away from everything,” Dunham said.

As she searched for answers, she became her own advocate  pushing health care teams for more tests, innovative solutions and, in some instances, to be believed that she was living with a debilitating condition. Eventually, she learned she was suffering from chronic pancreatitis. With her days filled with near constant pain, she spent nights researching possible treatments. Dunham even joined a support group on Facebook, where members implored her to call a surgeon in Richmond, Virginia, who could help  VCU Health’s Marlon Levy, M.D.

Dunham contacted the VCU Health Hume-Lee Transplant Center, made an appointment and traveled the more than 400 miles south to Stony Point 9109, where the transplant center has a dedicated satellite clinic.

For Dunham, something just felt right about VCU. She even came to find out that a team coordinator, Genevieve Hobbs, with whom Dunham made the appointment and who would guide her though her patient journey, is also a classically trained opera singer.

“We’re the same voice type  soprano!” Dunham exclaimed. 

“Then, when I met Dr. Levy, I just knew there was hope and success for me,” Dunham said. “It was like lifting a dark veil off my life to meet with him because of his professionalism and knowledge. He listened to what I had to say.”

A number of tests followed, and then Levy explained to Dunham a groundbreaking procedure that could eliminate her pain. It’s a surgery called Pancreatectomy with Islet Cell Autotransplantation (TP-IAT). Hume-Lee is one of the few transplant centers across the country offering the surgery for the treatment of chronic pancreatitis, and Levy is one of the leading experts in the U.S. The treatment involves removing the patient's diseased pancreas, extracting its insulin-producing cells and infusing those cells into the patient's own liver, which will then begin to produce insulin. This innovative treatment offers relief from the pain of chronic pancreatitis  and the medications often needed to manage it  while still allowing patients adequate blood sugar control.

When I met Dr. Levy, I just knew there was hope and success for me. It was like lifting a dark veil off my life to meet with him because of his professionalism and knowledge. He listened to what I had to say.

“You first hear about the surgery and say, ‘wow, there’s a solution,’ but there’s also this feeling of terror in terms of ‘how do they do that?’ ” Dunham said. “But I couldn’t turn my back to the level of care I would receive from Dr. Levy and the team.”

On March 19, she underwent the TP-IAT procedure with Levy as her surgeon. Dunham’s pancreas was removed, islet cells were extracted and then infused into her liver.

Approximately four months later, Dunham sang in front of an audience at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in New York. She did so pain free for the first time in more than four years, reinvigorating her love of life and music.

“I was amazed how easy it was,” Dunham said of her return to singing after surgery. “I started rehearsals and was amazed how easy it was to sing without pancreas pain.

“I have such an out-of-body love and passion and joy that comes from using my singing voice, knowing that you’re somehow touching people in the audience. It’s all about the greater good and love of singing and performance that can be very healing.” 

“We are delighted with her outcomes,” said Levy, chair of the Division of Transplant Surgery and director of the Hume-Lee Transplant Center. “Chronic pancreatitis patients often suffer needlessly for long periods of time before they get the correct diagnosis and treatment. Often, as she did, they are willing to travel great distances to get help.”

Patients from all over the country have traveled to Hume-Lee for the innovative care since the program’s inception in 2016. Now, a new milestone is being celebrated. The Hume-Lee Transplant Center has been recognized by the National Pancreas Foundation as an approved NPF Center.

VCU is one of a handful in the Southeast and one of only two health systems in Virginia to attain the designation for its pancreatitis care. According to the NPF, these centers are at premier health care facilities that focus on multidisciplinary treatment of pancreas disease, treating the whole patient with a focus on the best possible outcomes and improved quality of life. The centers undergo an extensive auditing process and meet the criteria developed by a task force made up of invited subject matter experts and patient advocates.

“Our designation as a specialty care center for chronic pancreatitis by the National Pancreas Foundation should help patients like Ms. Dunham be more aware of the resources VCU has to offer them,” Levy said.

“The pancreas can be a very wicked organ,” Dunham said. “I am thankful and blessed there are Dr. Levys in the world that are on such a high level that they can do this miraculous surgery and make people better.

“I will forever be grateful.”