Miami Transplant Institute performs first fully robotic dual kidney/pancreas transplant on woman suffering from diabetes, pancreatitis, and kidney failure
By: Krysten Brenlla
For Elizabeth Ramirez, 37, taking insulin shots was just another aspect of her daily routine.
“I was diagnosed with type I diabetes in Honduras when I was 8 years old,” Ramirez said. “Growing up, I didn’t really understand diabetes because you don’t feel it. But when you live years with the disease, your body lets you know.”
At 16 years old, Ramirez and her family arrived to the United States. Throughout her late teens and early 20s, she and her medical team kept her diabetes under control with medication and a strict diet.
However, when Ramirez turned 25, she lost an unhealthy amount of weight and started to feel sharp abdominal pains. One Christmas Eve, she could barely move and had to rush to the hospital.
“I was diagnosed with acute pancreatitis and gastroenteritis, on top of my diabetes,” Ramirez said.
For years, she was afraid to eat due to the constant pain she felt from the inflammation in her stomach. To help alleviate her discomfort, Ramirez underwent a new treatment plan with Marco G. Farias, MD, a nephrologist in Boynton Beach, FL. However, after six years, she found herself in the hospital again.
Ramirez then began to manage the inflammation through pain medication, which caused her kidney function to rapidly decline.
In May 2023, she suffered another pancreatitis flare-up, and rushed to Jackson Memorial Hospital for help. Desperate for a new treatment option, she met with a nephrologist at the Miami Transplant Institute (MTI), an affiliation between Jackson Health System and UHealth – University of Miami Health System.
What Ramirez’s nephrologist found changed her life. She was suffering from end-stage renal disease, and required dialysis or a kidney transplant to survive.
“When we met Elizabeth, she was devastated and hopeless, doomed to rely on a dialysis machine to keep her alive,” said Mariella Ortigosa-Goggins, MD, director of the kidney/pancreas transplant program at MTI. “She was, however, a very strong and determined woman, and she was eager to take any hope we could provide her.”
Although Ramirez’s declining health was difficult, the team at MTI knew she was a great candidate for a dual kidney/pancreas transplant. They spent three months helping Ramirez prepare her body for the procedure. By September, she was placed on the transplant list. Just five days later, her prayers were answered – they found a match.
“I heard my phone ring at 7:15 p.m. That’s when I found out there were organ offers for me,” Ramirez said. “God gave me everything I had been asking for. It was pretty amazing to see my prayers come to fruition.”
On September 20, 2023, Ramirez prepared for a dual kidney/pancreas transplant. It was also the first time a multidisciplinary team, led by Rodrigo Vianna, MD, PhD, MTI’s director of transplant services and chief of liver, intestinal, and multivisceral transplant, and Phillipe Abreu, MD, an abdominal transplant and robotic surgeon, performed a fully robotic dual transplant procedure.
After a week in the hospital, Ramirez was discharged with minimal pain, and for the first time in 30 years, she was no longer suffering from the diseases that almost took her life.
“I was in pain from the surgery when I woke up, but the constant pain I felt in my pancreas was finally gone,” she said. “I was very excited for what my life was going to look like without pain, diabetes, and daily dialysis.”
For now, Ramirez is looking forward to no longer having to worry about what she can or cannot eat, inflammation, insulin, or failing kidneys.
As she gets stronger, she hopes to use her passion for cooking to inspire other diabetic patients with healthy meal options.
Ramirez is not only thankful for the teams at MTI and at Jackson for saving her life, but also for the donor family for providing her with a second chance to live diabetes- and dialysis-free.
“There aren’t enough words to say to the donor family for the blessing they gave me, or to the team at Jackson that went above and beyond toward treating me and fighting with me,” Ramirez said.
“They gave me a second life, and for that, I am eternally grateful.”