Just over a year ago, Dr. Joe Scalea (BIT ’02), a liver, kidney, and pancreas transplant surgeon, was tasked with expanding the University of Maryland Medical Center’s pancreas transplant program in Baltimore as its new director. The program was far from meeting its potential, and Scalea sought not just to expand these life-changing surgeries but to partner with other medical specialists to build a multidisciplinary team for diabetes care.
Under Scalea’s leadership, patient evaluations for potential pancreas transplants have grown seven-fold, and the pancreas transplant rate is up 116 percent.
He takes pride in noting that the program is now ranked No. 1 in the U.S., according to the United Network of Organ Sharing, for combined kidney-pancreas transplantation, a procedure performed when kidney failure results from severe diabetes. The medical center is among the top 5 centers nationally in volume* for all forms of pancreas transplantation.
At the intersection of business and medicine
Combining medical and business acumen, Scalea has also helped develop medical devices, including one to cool donor organs and a novel system for moving them around the country, inventions for which provisional patents have been filed.
“Joe likes to live at the intersection of business and medicine — a place where he can effect real change beyond the walls of his own hospital,” said his wife Meghan, who is also a Virginia Tech alum, with a 2003 degree in communications.
Scalea himself finds it particularly fulfilling to be able to give sick people a second chance at life.
In the case of pancreas transplantation, Scalea’s patients are diabetic, and nearly always suffering from kidney failure and other complications, including neuropathy, retinopathy, gastroparesis, and severe glucose instability, he said. After surgery (often combined pancreas-and-kidney transplantation), they no longer require insulin or kidney dialysis and are able to lead a normal life.
“My job is very high energy, very high risk, and very high reward — there is almost nothing better than telling patients their diabetes, as they’ve known it, is gone. It’s such a privilege to get to do this for a living.”
Tracing the trajectory of accomplishments
Scalea earned his medical degree at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in 2007. He completed a post-doctoral fellowship in transplant biology at Harvard Medical School, an internship and residencies in general surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center, and a fellowship in transplant surgery at the University of Wisconsin.
Scalea, who is also dually appointed as an assistant professor of immunology, also directs a translational immunology laboratory. His research grants include support from the American Surgical Association, the Greenwall Foundation, and the National Institutes of Health.
He has a long list of accolades, including the American Surgical Association’s Junior Investigator Award and the Shock Trauma Center’s Hero Award, and is a member of the prestigious Alpha Omega Alpha honor society.
Medicine aside, Scalea is a musician and a painter and has written for The Atlantic magazine and Readers Digest.
Tracing his accomplishments with the hospital’s transplant program back to his Virginia Tech education, Scalea said, “All of this progress is a direct result of the skills I gained while a business information technology major at the Pamplin College of Business.”
A knowledge of calculus, macroeconomics, and supply chain management, for example, has helped him tackle a number of the challenges he faced in his role as director of pancreas transplantation.
“There is almost nothing better than telling patients their diabetes, as they’ve known it, is gone.”
Drawing on a business background
Reflecting on the state of transplantation at his center and across the country, Scalea said “my numbers would suggest that several thousand patients should have been offered pancreas transplants over the last decade.” He added that “methods for tracking appropriate referrals, optimizing organ allocation from locations across the country, and unification of multidisciplinary transplant teams have been lacking.”
Studying all the factors leading to the relatively low numbers of transplants, Scalea drew on his business background to find solutions that would optimize the flow of the internal referral pattern and would lead to an increased number of transplants, enhancing access to care for sick patients.
He has also focused on how temperature and ergonomics affect the quality of an organ for transplantation, which led to the development of a patented cooling system able to preserve the organ for about an hour and a half while it is prepared for surgery.
Teamwork, said Scalea, also plays an integral role when identifying best candidates for pancreas transplantation. In a comprehensive, multidisciplinary effort, he reaches out to others in the medical profession — endocrinologists and nephrologists, for example — who are deeply involved in caring for patients with diabetes to draw on their knowledge and recommendations for surgery.
“Interpersonal interaction is important in any industry,” said Scalea, “and the medical profession is no exception. Building a network on strong relationships is another lifelong skill I learned at Pamplin.”
Reconnecting with Pamplin
As busy as Scalea is, he also seeks to give back to his alma mater in an active, meaningful way. In 2012, he initiated contact with Virginia Tech to find a way to talk to students interested in medical careers. Since then, he has been a guest lecturer in Careers and Medicine, a fall course in the Honors College open to Virginia Tech students in any major.
“Building a network on strong relationships is another lifelong skill I learned at Pamplin.”
“We are very fortunate to have a surgeon as passionate and caring as Joe who takes the time to come to Blacksburg to share his professional experience and insights with students,” said Carol Robinson, director of health professions advising at Virginia Tech. “When Joe is here, he devotes his attention entirely to them. He is a great role model and motivator.”
Robinson said it is common for students to cite Scalea in their final papers.
“Joseph Scalea’s presentation stood out most to me. Not only is his profession impressive and interesting, but he is the kind of person that I hope to be…Overall, I was thoroughly inspired leaving class that day,” one student wrote.
Another student said, “Dr. Scalea’s presentation was motivating and inspiring. He was in our shoes at one point, as a Virginia Tech undergraduate student. He worked hard, went to medical school, got his medical degree…and now he is living his dream. He has the ability to transplant organs that add years to a patient’s life…Dr. Scalea illustrated what it means to make a difference and pursue a passion to help others.”
Scalea has credited Pamplin retired professor J.F. Robinson with being an inspiration for him.
“Dr. Robinson encouraged education beyond the classroom,” Scalea said, “and I left Virginia Tech with a real passion for learning that has greatly influenced my life and career.”
* Surgical volumes are year to date. Updated volumes can be found at www.unos.org.
– By Barbara Micale and Sookhan Ho
– Photos by Christoper Lewkovich, University of Maryland Medical System