Digestive Disease Institute

Reclaiming Life’s Joy: A Complex Surgery Leads to Cure

Reclaiming Life’s Joy: A Complex Surgery Leads to Cure

Last Dec. 24, Saleh El Sayed and his wife Russanne celebrated 45 years of marriage. The pair met at college in Washington, DC; Saleh grew up in Egypt and Russanne in California. They would marry and live overseas, grow their careers in academia and raise a family. Eventually, a move to Seattle meant the couple would be closer to their college-bound daughters, but Saleh had another pressing need: finding the right medical team to treat his pancreatic cancer.

image description Saleh El Sayed

Saleh was no stranger to pulling off medical feats. Five years earlier he’d undergone a double transplant — liver and kidney — due to complications from hepatitis C. Months of medication cured Saleh’s hepatitis, and the transplant, which took place at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, saved his life. Years later the couple was referred by Saleh’s Mayo Clinic doctors to Virginia Mason Medical Center for cancer treatment. Saleh underwent an intense chemotherapy regimen with oncologist Vincent Picozzi, MD, then considered the possibility of an operation with Digestive Disease Institute surgeon Scott Helton, MD.

“We had a discussion about the surgery and I had to be realistic,” remembers Saleh. “I was lucky because talking to Dr. Helton made me think he was one of the best at doing something very difficult. It’s a serious operation, but like other things in life, you face it.”

Saleh and Dr. Helton talked about the Whipple procedure, a multi-stage surgery that involves removing part of the pancreas, small intestine, gallbladder and part of the bile duct. In cases like Saleh’s, part of a vein behind the pancreas must also be removed. The final stage involves reconnecting the remaining pancreas, bile duct and intestine so the body can receive and digest food. A daunting surgery for any patient, but for someone with Saleh’s medical history, virtually unheard of. Only one other patient in the world is reported to have undergone a Whipple operation for cancer following a liver transplant.

“When you can produce something good … for yourself, for your children and for others, that’s what makes you happy inside." – Saleh El Sayed

While on average a Whipple procedure takes five to seven hours to complete, Saleh’s lasted 13. Dr. Helton operated with the assistance of Jared Brandenberger, MD, an experienced transplant surgeon. “Because of Saleh’s transplant Dr. Helton had a mass of tissue to go through, little by little,” says Russanne. “They had to resect a vein that had previously been resected. This operation happened in the same place as the transplant which made it much harder.”

Dr. Helton and the team brought all of their experience to bear on Saleh’s operation. Data show that hospitals doing higher volumes of pancreatic surgeries like the Whipple have higher success rates and fewer complications. Virginia Mason treats almost a third of all pancreatic cancer patients in Washington state, with a multidisciplinary care team providing highly specialized treatment and access to clinical trials. Collaboration across specialties contributes to an overall survival rate for patients at double the national average, as reported by the National Cancer Institute’s Surveillance, Epidemiology and End Results Program (SEER).

Saleh survived his marathon surgery and is now cancer-free. He is honest when describing his challenging recovery. After 45 years as a professor he particularly noticed his state of mind after surgery; the inability to concentrate, the temporary dip in cognition that seemed to deflate his thoughts. He also battled physical setbacks related to chemotherapy and sudden weight loss. But everything is OK now, says Saleh, who has returned to life’s familiar routines.

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Grateful for the kindness of his care team, Saleh finds continued solace in the small online community of Whipple patients. They validated his struggle to get well and became beacons of hope, sharing the reclaimed joys of life after surgery. For Saleh, inspiration comes from having a sense of purpose.

“When you can produce something good … for yourself, for your children and for others, that’s what makes you happy inside,” says Saleh. “I have that desire, I have a job to do. One day at a time, as they say.”

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