Advance with MUSC Health

Melissa's Story

Advance With MUSC Health
June 22, 2021
Close up of a doctor's face while performing surgery

Melissa Mutz doesn't give up easily. Neither did her MUSC Health physicians.

Mutz, 37, fought courageously for 20 years to make nurses and physicians believe her acute stomach pain was real.

Not until spring 2019, when she was referred to MUSC Health GI Surgeon Katherine Morgan, did Mutz find an understanding care team and relief from the chronic hereditary pancreatitis that had claimed her mother's life when Mutz was 6. Mutz also singles out Dr. Eli Penn, an MUSC graduate practicing in Georgia, as part of that team.

Dr. Morgan performed a total pancreatectomy with islet autoimmune transplant later that year (TPIAT). The procedure involves removal of the patient's pancreas along with insulin-producing islet cells. The islet cells are then implanted back into the patient's liver, where they produce insulin. The procedure was a turning point in Mutz’s life, one that rivals a Grimm's fairy tale for a happy ending.

After her mother's death, Mutz was sent to live with relatives near Savannah. By her own admission, the situation was 'not a good one.'

"I had bouts of severe stomach pain and I wasn't taken to a doctor," she says.

At age 16, during a particularly severe attack, she went to the local hospital's ER where, instead of compassionate treatment, she was greeted with doubts and peppered with questions. "They asked me how much I'd had to drink and what I'd done to induce this pain," she says. "I'd never had alcohol in my life and I certainly didn't do drugs," Mutz says. "They thought the pain was in my head and that I just wanted attention."

The incident was the first of a vicious 20-year cycle of debilitating pain and skeptical clinicians – all while attending college at Georgia Southern University, starting a promising career in finance at a high-profile financial institution, marrying and becoming a mother.

"Every time I'd visit the hospital, they'd tell me I just wanted pain medicine, that I wanted out of a bad situation, that it was all in my head, or that I had irritable bowel syndrome. Three days before our wedding, nurses told my husband that I was faking pain to avoid marrying him. Many times, I was sent home in extreme pain."

The situation was daunting, she says. "In college, there were times I couldn't get out of bed to attend class, and I was always trying to make up work. After I graduated and began working, some days I was too sick to work. Even though I was very good at what I did and loved my work, management would doubt me and ask for proof that I had been sick."

After one two-week hospital stay, she lost her job.

Still, life had its bright moments. She had found Dr. Eli Penn in 2015, an MUSC graduate, who took a special interest in her case and diagnosed her with chronic hereditary pancreatitis. "He advocated for me as no one ever had," she says. "It was such a relief to hear that my pain wasn't all in my head."

She married Michael Mutz; they had a son, Luke, and the young family moved to Louisiana, where Michael took a job as assistant football coach at Tulane University.

In May 2019, during a visit to Georgia, she was hospitalized in Brunswick under Dr. Penn's care. He recommended she seek treatment at MUSC. "By this time, I was in daily pain, bloated and unable to lose weight even though I was on a liquid diet and exercising," Mutz says.

One week later, she was transported to MUSC Health, where Drs. Greg Cote and Morgan confirmed Dr Penn's diagnosis of chronic hereditary pancreatitis and recommended the TPIAT procedure. MUSC worked with Dr. Penn so he could sit in on the surgery.

Mutz's surgery was performed on Oct. 31, 2019. Because her pancreas was so diseased, it had to be peeled away from her other organs.

"I felt better almost immediately," she says. "I was up walking on day two and, once being discharged, I did not require any pain medicine."

In fact, she felt so good that she was able to prepare a hearty Thanksgiving feast of turkey and all the trimmings for Tulane linebackers and even partake - though not like a linebacker - of turkey and mashed potatoes. Best of all, she was able to keep up with 2 ½-year-old Luke.

Oh, and that fairy tale comparison? Well, like many fairy tales, it has a happy ending.

Mutz and Michael are the parents of baby Ella Grace, born on Nov. 2, 2020, exactly one year and two days after her operation, and Mutz says she's "never felt better."Melissa Mutz was diagnosed with chronic hereditary pancreatitis by Doctors Greg Cote and Katherine Morgan at MUSC Health

"I'm pain free and I'm at a healthy weight, and can eat whatever I want," she says. "I feel mentally well, too, and I'm exercising daily."

She returns annually to MUSC to see Dr. Morgan. "I want Dr. Morgan to see the results of her outstanding work," Mutz says.

And Mutz is as enthusiastic an advocate for Morgan as Morgan was for her. "I'm in a Facebook group of people with hereditary pancreatitis, and I always recommend Dr. Morgan if someone needs surgery. I had a post-op complication, and she and her resident came up with a solution. They did not give up. The nurses at MUSC were the best I ever had in my a 20-year 'pain career.'"

Reflecting on how her life has improved dramatically, Mutz says Dr. Morgan gave her the road map for success. "She doesn't sugarcoat anything. She told me it wouldn't be easy, but that I could do it."

Then Mutz pauses before paying Dr. Morgan the ultimate compliment: "She didn't just change my life. She saved my life."