Bella (left) with Maisam Abu-El-Haija, MD, MS, and one of the nurses from the Pancreatic Care Center, celebrating the one-year anniversary of Bella's Total Pancreatectomy with Islet Autotransplantation (TPIAT).
Doctor and Patient Honored at National Pancreas Foundation Gala
Maisam Abu-El-Haija, MD, MS, medical director of the Pancreas Care Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, and her patient, Bella Pedraja, were both honored at the National Pancreas Foundation’s (NPF) 2023 gala, which was held in Cincinnati, OH on Saturday, April 15.
Abu-El-Haija received the NPF’s Nobility in Science award for her advancements in pancreatic care at Cincinnati Children’s. This honor is presented to physicians across the country who are leaders amongst their peers and provide critical research development with exceptional care for patients battling pancreatic diseases. According to the NPF, doctors who receive this award are true champions of medical science and have set a bar of excellence that all others in the field hope to attain one day.
“I chose medicine as a field to help others, and caring for patients with disorders of the pancreas has kept me focused on the healing mission of medicine all these years,” Abu-El-Haija said. “The more stories I heard from pancreas patients about their suffering, the more determined I became to pursue the call of caring for them. This award highlights the efforts of not just the pancreas team, but also Cincinnati Children’s as a whole. It is indeed an honor that the National Pancreas Foundation has recognized our service to patients.”
Abu-El-Haija graduated from the Jordan University of Science and Technology in Jordan before completing her pediatric residency and fellowship in gastroenterology at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City, IA. She joined Cincinnati Children’s in 2012. Her research, which is funded by the National Institute of Health, includes areas such as acute and chronic pancreatitis, genetic testing, and precision medicine approaches to care. With more than 140 peer-reviewed papers, Abu-El-Haija’s innovative work has resulted in breakthrough discoveries that have changed the way childhood pancreatitis has been managed over the last decade.
Bella Pedraja was also honored that night with the Courage Award, which is presented to patients who have exemplified a high level of commitment and courage in battling either pancreatic cancer or pancreatitis.
Bella, a 14-year-old competitive swimmer who lives in Florida with her family, began having stomach pains at age 12, which led to many hospital visits. She was eventually diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, a painful and debilitating condition in which the pancreas becomes inflamed. Bella’s doctors
in Florida recommended the Pancreas Care Center at Cincinnati Children’s, one of the few centers in the United States dedicated to caring for children with pancreatic diseases.
Bella and her parents then traveled north to Cincinnati Children’s where she underwent a Total Pancreatectomy with Islet Autotransplantation (TPIAT), a procedure that involves removal of the pancreas and reconstruction of the gastrointestinal tract, isolating her insulin secreting cells (islets), and transplanting them back into her portal vein. Cincinnati Children’s is one of only a few institutions in the United States capable of performing a TPIAT, which has made it possible for many children, like Bella, to return to their normal lives without pain.
Bella received the Courage Award from the NPF because, while at Cincinnati Children’s, she selflessly sought to brighten up the lives of patients and staff members around her by creating “theme days.” These days, which went on for more than a month, included “Dinosaur Thursday,” “May the 4th” (from Star Wars’ popular “may the Force be with you” saying), “Sunflower Sunday,” and “Superhero Sunday,” among others. The days became so beloved that staff would come to the hospital on their days off to see what the theme would be. In addition, Bella set out to raise money for those needing treatment for pancreatic conditions. To date, she has raised more than $70,000 for Cincinnati Children’s and more than $18,000 for the NPF.
Bella is all smiles as she holds her award at the Gala.
Bella and Maisam Abu-El-Haija enjoying themselves on the dance floor.
“My parents have always taught me to think of others,” Bella said. “So, we created themes at every [morning hospital] meeting to lighten the mood and make everyone laugh just a little, even when the news was not in my favor. I’ve also made it my mission to raise money so that parents and children experiencing this journey don’t have to worry about anything other than their kids. Together, we can change the outcome!”
Cincinnati Children’s is ranked third overall, and first in gastroenterology and GI surgery, among all pediatric hospitals in the nation by "U.S. News & World Report." The Pancreas Care Center at Cincinnati Children’s is recognized as a National Pancreas Foundation Center of Excellence. The center offers highly specialized care that is not widely available, including the TPIAT procedure, which is only performed in a handful of institutions in the United States. Patients come to the center from across the country and around the world to receive expert diagnosis and advanced care for acute, recurrent, and chronic pancreatitis, among other conditions.
Bella organized theme days at the hospital, like "Superhero Sunday" and "Dinosaur Thursday" to brighten the mood of patients and staff.
Bella with some of the Pancreatic Care Center staff.
Bella was the 101st patient to receive a Total Pancreatectomy with Islet Autotransplantation (TPIAT) at Cincinnati Children's.