An Organ Virtuoso
Surgeon Sukru Emre spearheads Yale’s groundbreaking transplantation center
By Karen Singer
Thank-you notes and photos of smiling children adorn the walls of the Yale-New Haven Transplantation Center. In some of the pictures is a smiling man with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair — Sukru Emre, MD, the surgeon who saved their lives.
A specialist in pediatric liver, split liver and living donor transplantation, Emre is director of the center, which has become “one of the jewels in our crown” since his arrival in 2007, according to Yale-New Haven Hospital President and CEO Marna Borgstrom. “He has really put together a comprehensive program for adults and children, with an incredible degree of confidence and compassion, and a real commitment to patients and their families,” Borgstrom says. “He takes some of the most seriously ill patients, and the survival rates are consistently higher than the national average.”
At YNHH, the one-year survival rate for liver transplants is 100 percent for pediatric patients and 98 percent for adults, compared to around 91 percent for pediatrics and 88 percent for adults nationwide, Emre says.
In 2009, the transplantation center completed 92 kidney transplants — with 47 from deceased donors and 45 from living donors — 45 liver transplants (with seven from living donors), one pancreatic transplant and ten heart transplants.
A soft-spoken man, Emre describes the work of his multidisciplinary team as “a privilege.
“We do our best to make [transplants] happen,” he says. “This is not an easy task, and it puts a lot of pressure on our shoulders. It’s life-and-death situations, and you have to treat everyone as if they were your family members.”
Emre grew up in Turkey, where his own family’s medical crises galvanized his desire to become a physician.
“My father died because of a doctor’s mistake, and my mother is alive because of a good one,” he says, adding two of his three brothers also went into medicine, specializing in cardiology and neurology.
Emre trained at the University of Istanbul, where he did his residency and developed an interest in the pancreas and bile ducts.
After two years of “obligatory field work” as a surgeon in southern Turkey and three years mandatory military service, he joined the University of Istanbul and became a professor of surgery. His animal studies on liver transplantation led to research fellowships in the U.S.
In 1990, Emre came to the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York to learn clinical transplantation. He stayed for 17 years, and was director of the adult and pediatric liver transplant programs for five years before moving on to Yale.
“He is one of the strongest patient advocates I’ve ever seen,” says Michael Schilsky, MD, who began working with Emre in 1999 at Mount Sinai, where the surgeon was one of three leaders of the surgery section for transplant.
“He was spearheading pediatric liver transplant, doing phenomenal things, and having outcomes nobody had ever seen,” says Schilsky, who now is medical director for adult liver transplant at the Yale transplantation center. “He is one of those surgeons who doesn’t just talk it but lives it, and gives 110 percent all the time. That kind of work ethic and moral fiber is infectious, and he expects all the people around him to share those values.”
In 2007, shortly after becoming director of the YNHH Transplantation Center, Emre performed the first split-liver transplant in Connecticut, implanting a small portion from an adult donor in a seven-month-old child. An adult transplant patient received the rest of the liver.
“I had done this in New York many times,” he explains.
In 2009, the hospital received a Medal of Honor from the New England Organ Bank (NEOB), for achieving high organ donation rates. Emre is one of the organ bank’s four assistant medical directors.
“He has been in our field for many, many years, is a well respected, terrific guy, and obviously has made a big impact in New Haven in a short period of time,” says NEOB President and CEO Richard Luskin.
“One thing that just amazes me about Dr. Emre is he worries more about the donor than the recipient,” says Jay Leos, a Trumbull police officer who thought for years he would be a liver donor for his daughter, Kyleigh.
Leos knew Emre from Mount Sinai, where Kyleigh underwent surgery as an infant for deformed bile ducts.
But several months ago, when Kyleigh’s liver began to fail, tests at Yale ruled out Leos as a donor for his now 15-year-old teenager.
Michael Gonzalez, a fellow officer, was a match, and he decided to go ahead with the September 22 surgery after a three-hour meeting with Emre, which included Gonzalez’s girlfriend, mother and stepfather.
“He has a great way of explaining things, and gives you a sense of confidence,” says Gonzalez. “After that meeting I felt very comfortable with him.”
When he’s not with patients or performing surgery, or meeting nurses, residents and faculty, or sorting out administrative issues, Emre is on the road sharing his expertise, in the U.S. and abroad. “I’ve trained almost 50 fellows and a third of the leaders or program directors here and in other countries,” he says.
He also spends as much time as he can performing public outreach about organ donation.
Although most donated organs come deceased donors, who can provide multiple organs, the availability of cadaveric organs is “unpredictable,” Emre says, adding living donors enable surgeons to perform transplants before patients “become really sick.
On September 22, Gov. M. Jodi Rell announced that more than a million Connecticut residents had registered on their driver’s licenses to be organ and tissue donors.
A milestone for sure, but Emre says that far more could — and should — register.
“People come [to the transplantation clinic], and we tell them we’ll take care of them as best we can,” he says. “My job is to keep my promise and save their lives.
“I cannot do this thing if we do not have enough organs to end people’s misery and give them a new life. If they ask whether I signed my donor card, I tell them ‘yes.’”
Always seeking new tests and techniques to help his patients, Emre soon will begin performing liver cell transplants.
“There are some metabolic liver diseases where, because of a missing enzyme, patients develop complications and may die of it,” he says. “There are centers around the world looking into this, and we are going to be part of the research group.”
\cutlineEMRE\’People come to the clinic and we tell them we’ll take care of them as best we can,’ Emre says. ‘My job is to keep my promise and save their lives.’
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