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Pitt losing top transplant surgeon

Tuesday, October 01, 2002

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Dr. Velma Scantlebury, a University of Pittsburgh transplant surgeon who was the first black woman in the field, has resigned to run the transplant program at the University of South Alabama College of Medicine.

Dr. Velma Scantlebury

Yesterday was Scantlebury's last official day at Pitt, but she had already begun setting up shop in Mobile, where she is taking over a transplant program that has lacked a surgeon since June.

Colleagues say the move is a step up for Scantlebury, who will serve as professor of surgery and an assistant dean for community education.

Studies have shown that black patients with end-stage renal disease don't have the same access to kidney transplants as whites. Scantlebury made eliminating that disparity a goal during her 16 years at Pitt, and she will continue that work at the University of South Alabama, where roughly half of all patients are black.

Whatever their race, too few patients know enough about their transplant options, Scantlebury said.

"Patients are not really aware of what they're entitled to in terms of referral for transplants -- access to health care in general, really -- and that's always been a passion of mine," she said.

Dr. Ron Shapiro, director of Pitt's kidney transplant program, said that in many ways Scantlebury is irreplaceable. While she is a rarity as a black female transplant surgeon, she also has exceptional surgical skills and tremendous experience, he said.

Scantlebury has performed more than 200 living donor kidney transplants and more than 500 cadaveric kidney transplants in children and adults.

"It's a terrible loss for us," Shapiro said. "But on the other hand, from her point of view, this is a fabulous opportunity. ... This is a move that was inevitable for someone of her ability."

Since the University of South Alabama's Gulf Coast Regional Transplant Center opened in the late 1990s, it has performed more than 70 transplants, a fraction of the total at Pitt. Before it opened, Mobile patients drove 270 miles to Birmingham for a kidney transplant.

Scantlebury came to Pitt to work and train with Dr. Thomas Starzl, a pioneer of liver transplantation. She said working with and learning from Starzl is a highlight of her years at the medical center.

In addition to working with many national organizations, Scantlebury was a board member for the Lemington Home for the Aged and an educator with the Pittsburgh chapter of the Transplant Recipient International Organization.

She was recently honored with the National Kidney Foundation's "Gift of Life Award" for her work in the field of kidney transplantation and minorities.

Scantlebury's departure comes amid several changes in Pitt's transplant program.

Dr. Carlos Vivas, another kidney transplant surgeon, left Pitt to join Allegheny General Hospital in June. Dr. Robert Corry, Pitt's chief of pancreas transplants, died in February of injuries sustained in a car accident.

A new kidney transplant surgeon, Dr. Henki Tan, will join the Pitt program next week. An expert in laparoscopic removal of donor kidneys, Tan was recruited from the University of Rochester by Dr. Amadeo Marcos, who was named clinical director of transplants at Pitt in August.

Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at csnowbeck@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

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