FAIRMONT - It's a little over a year since Brianna Kent had surgery to remove her pancreas, spleen and gallbladder, which is about how long it's taken her to recover.
Without her pancreas to produce insulin, Brianna is diabetic, but the Fairmont teen says diabetes is easier to live with than pancreatitis. And if all goes as planned, her diabetes could be cured within the year thanks to a relatively new procedure called auto-islet transplantation.
"I've got a life now, and that's what I was going for," Brianna said.
Brianna Kent, seen here in her Facebook profile picture, will be a junior at Fairmont High School this fall after a year recovering from a pancreatectomy and auto-islet transplantation.
Pancreatitis isn't an easy disease to define, not even for Brianna and her mother, Penny Kent. Brianna was born with hereditary chronic pancreatitis, which she inherited from her father, who inherited it from his father.
"We know what it is, but it's really hard to explain," Brianna said.
"We just dealt with it," her mother added.
On its website, Mayo Clinic describes the pancreas as a "long, flat gland that sits tucked behind the stomach in the upper abdomen. The pancreas produces enzymes that help digestion and hormones that help regulate the way your body processes sugar."
Brianna's pancreas was failing to help her body break down the fat, causing the glandular organ to become inflamed.
"Sometimes it was like knives and needles were inside my pancreas," she said. "Sometimes it felt like my pancreas was twisting."
The pain had been part of Brianna's life for as long as she can remember. When she was 3 years old, after exhibiting symptoms for two years, a genetic test showed she had inherited the same disease that plagued her father.
"It was rare for a girl to get it," Penny Kent said, "and usually it skips generations."
Hospitals became a familiar setting for mother and daughter. They spent many holidays and birthdays there while Brianna recovered from pancreatic attacks. Three times, stents were inserted to drain the pancreatic duct, until her pediatric gastroenterologist told the family there was too much scarring to continue.
An auto-islet transplant program at the University of Minnesota's Schulze Diabetes Institute seemed to be the answer to Brianna's problems, but it wasn't an easy choice. Recovery would be a slow, painful process and the teen would potentially be trading pancreatitis for diabetes.
Brianna waited to make the decision, until the pancreatic attacks amped up, striking almost daily and forcing the normally chipper teen into bed rest.
"One day I said, 'Mom, I need to have this done.' I wanted my life back," she said.
On May 6, she underwent the 14-hour pancreatectomy, which included the removal of her pancreas, gallbladder and spleen, and auto-islet transplantation. Islets are clusters of cells in the pancreas that are needed for the body to make insulin.
On its website, www.diabetes.umn.edu, the Schulze Institute describes how the islet transplant works: "During this process, islet cells from the patient's own pancreas are isolated and inserted into the patient's liver where they can continue to produce insulin. No anti-rejection drugs are necessary because the cells are from the patient's own body."
It isn't a common operation. Brianna was being treated for her pancreatitis at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, but she would have been the first teen at the facility to undergo an auto-islet transplantation, said Penny Kent. Instead the family chose the medical team at the University of Minnesota, since the procedure was developed there. The university boasts it is one of two in the nation that routinely performs pancreatectomies and auto-islet transplants for patients with chronic pancreatitis.
The institution is proud of how successful the auto-islet transplant program has been: 72 percent of its patients have managed their diabetes without regular insulin injections; 47 percent did not need any insulin after surgery; and 25 percent needed only intermittent insulin treatments. Brianna falls into the 72 percent who sometimes require insulin injections, though that could change in the future if the islets in her liver start producing enough insulin on their own.
What isn't mentioned on the university's website is the recovery.
Brianna was in the hospital's intensive care unit for several days after surgery. When she was able to come home, she still had to be tube-fed for months, taking 14 different medications several times a day.
"When I came home I was on so many meds - well, I guess it wasn't a lot compared to what some people have to take," Brianna said. "... Now I just have to take four pills in the morning and three at night. That's really good for me."
The surgical team at the university removed more than just her pancreas. They removed the pain that kept her from enjoying the things most healthy teenage girls take for granted, Brianna said, like going to school, hanging out with friends, even doing chores around the house. Oh yeah, and eating whatever she wants.
"The other day, my friend was at the gym, and I was sitting at home, eating a Big Mac, corn dog and ice cream, watching 'The Biggest Loser,'" she said, laughing at herself, but relishing her new freedom to eat fatty foods.
On a more serious note, the pancreatectomy has also freed Brianna and her family of the fear that accompanies a life-threatening disease. With the removal of Brianna's pancreas, doctors also eliminated a 50 percent chance of Brianna developing pancreatic cancer.
Brianna's pancreas has proven useful, however. She donated it to science.
"Hopefully it will help others out there with any kind of pancreatic problem," she said.