Radical transplant lets Mila live pain-free

A pioneering surgery, performed for only the second time in New South Wales, has transformed 10-year-old Mila’s life after a rare genetic condition stopped her pancreas from working.

Mila, who resides in Queensland, was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis when she was just four years old.

The condition, in which the pancreas injures and digests itself, causes inflammation and frequent attacks of excruciating pain, significantly impairing Mila’s quality of life.

It had impaired her ability to digest food and if left untreated, would have resulted in the complete destruction of the organ, leaving her at risk of developing diabetes and pancreatic cancer.

Mila was admitted to hospital in September last year, but treatment options were limited. 

“The pain was full on agony and there was really not much you could do about it,” Mila said.

With donor pancreases extremely hard to come by, and no standard way to fix her condition, Mila needed to cross the border to The Children’s Hospital at Westmead for an islet cell transplant.

This life-changing operation is currently only available in Sydney and Adelaide, and has only been performed on a handful of children across the country. Mila was just the second to undergo the procedure in NSW.

“By the time Mila was heading in for surgery, her pancreas had nearly digested itself entirely, she only had five per cent left,” her mother, Courtney said.

“It was her only option.”

Normally, without the pancreas, the body lacks insulin and cannot digest sugar. This can lead to diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease and brain damage.

However, through this innovative surgery, doctors were able to remove Mila’s entire pancreas and transplant healthy islets from her pancreas into her liver, where they slowly began to make insulin again.

“Nothing can prepare you to make such a big decision for your child but I’m so glad we did,” Courtney said.

The operation was a success and not only put a stop to the pain Mila was experiencing but also saved her endocrine function. Her islets (now in her liver) have remarkably begun to produce enough insulin to avoid her having to take any medicines or insulin injections to control her sugars. 

Paediatric Transplant Surgeon, Associate Professor Gordon Thomas, was part of the ‘big team’ responsible for the operation and said the result of Mila’s procedure was a great success.

“Mila now doesn’t require any insulin or any medications, is free of pain and is doing extremely well. This has been a big win for Mila and we are thrilled with the successful outcome of the procedure,” Associate Professor Thomas said.

Courtney says thank you doesn't seem like enough to show her appreciation to Mila's surgical team.

"I am forever grateful to each and every person who was involved in looking after Mila. I feel indebted to them - they have given me my little girl back."

Since the surgery, Mila has returned home to Queensland and is enjoying spending her time doing the things she loves – horse riding, going to the beach and rollerblading – all of which she can do now pain and medication free.

“It was a miracle. It’s given her a whole new life,” Courtney said.