Christmas was right around the corner, and 12-year-old Colton Krom was deep in thought planning out his letter to Santa Claus. His little sister Hailey stood at his side as he wrote. Colton’s mom, Natalie, caught up in the moment, lingered in the kitchen watching her two children.
Natalie could never have anticipated what would happen next. As she looked on, Colton fell to floor, clutching his stomach in pain.
Startled by the severity of his symptoms, the Kroms brought Colton to a local hospital near their home in Colorado. From there, they were referred to a large children’s hospital in the state. A month after the episode, Colton was diagnosed with pancreatitis, a debilitating and rare condition that occurs when the pancreas becomes inflamed.
“I didn’t know much about the pancreas,” Natalie said, remembering the moment when she learned of the diagnosis. “I didn’t know where it was located in the body, what it did, what it looked like, and why we needed one. But [after the diagnosis] we sure learned about it quickly.”
The Krom family later learned that Colton’s pancreatitis was hereditary, caused by a genetic mutation. He continued to get “attacks” every 6-12 weeks, which more often than not led to lengthy stays in the hospital as he recovered. His family tried to monitor his diet and his activities, limiting his fat intake and planning around his pain.
“As a family we didn’t make plans to do anything anymore. We couldn’t go to a ballgame or go on a trip because we just never knew when he was going to get sick,” Natalie said. “We were told there was nothing anyone could do.”
Colton missed more than 100 days of school a year, and started losing touch with friends. Natalie would give him pain medication, but it often wasn’t enough to take away the pain.
Two years later, Natalie was given a sliver of hope. One of Colton’s specialists called her. The specialist had contacted University of Minnesota Health Transplant Surgeon Srinath Chinnakotla, MD.
Chinnakotla performs a procedure called a pancreatectomy and islet auto-transplant (TP-IAT). The specialist said a TP-IAT could give Colton a chance at a pain-free life.
TP-IAT surgery involves the removal the inflamed pancreas, which eliminates the severe pain and the life-threatening complications that can accompany the condition, including pancreatic cancer. Without a pancreas to produce insulin, however, patients would typically develop diabetes. To solve this problem, technicians isolate islet cells from the removed pancreas during the TP-IAT procedure, and the surgeon puts them into the liver where they can continue to produce insulin. In some cases, this procedure can help the patient maintain normal blood sugar levels under all conditions, thus reducing any need for insulin and improving quality of life. No anti-rejection drugs are necessary because the cells are from the patient’s own body.
The TP-IAT procedure was invented at the University of Minnesota by Dr. David Sutherland in 1977. Since then, Chinnakotla has performed many of the procedures—but he’s not alone.
“Dr. Sutherland initially performed the procedure by himself, but over the years we have created a multidisciplinary team of gastroenterologists, surgeons, and pain management experts,” Chinnakotla said. “It has really taken this to another level.”
“We have the biggest and broadest interdisciplinary group interested in this,” said Critical Care Surgeon Gregory Beilman, MD.
Specialists like University of Minnesota Health Pediatric Gastroenterologist Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, MD, and Pediatric Endocrinologist Melena Bellin, MD, work closely with Chinnakotla, Beilman, and dozens of others—including medical professionals specializing in diabetes, pain management, gastroenterology, psychology, nutrition and research.
Currently, University of Minnesota Medical Center (which includes University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital) is one of two hospitals in the nation that performs this procedure.
Medical professionals around the world frequently travel to hospital to learn from our experts first hand. We’ve also completed more TP-IAT surgeries than any other center. On Sept. 1, the University of Minnesota Health team performed our 700th TP-IAT—on Colton Krom. More than 100 of those procedures involved pediatric patients.
“I tried to picture what his little pancreas would look like going for the ride to the lab and having the islet cells taken out,” said Natalie, laughing. Her smile fades. “Even though we were so scared for him having to undergo such a big procedure, we really felt we owed it to him. This was a chance, for him, to finally take his life back.”
Several weeks after the successful surgery, Colton is pain free and recovering back at home in Colorado. He can now eating pizza without a trip to the emergency room. The family can plan outings together without worrying about a pain attack. Natalie and her Rich once again envision Colton attending college unencumbered by pancreatitis, and successfully making it through his classes.
“We feel that he has his whole life ahead of him again. We don’t have to worry now,” Natalie said.