This is a story of one man’s triumph over adversity. Ryan Finlay is a 40-year old New York City police officer with a passion for the martial arts. For six years, he suffered through what turned out to be a rare, genetic disease that manifested in severe abdominal pain that comes from chronic pancreatitis. A novel treatment at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center finally and mercifully ended Ryan’s pain—but as a result of the treatment, he developed diabetes.
“Compared to what I’ve been through, diabetes is just no big deal,” said Ryan, who is New York Presbyterian’s first ever, “autologous islet transplant” patient and now a patient at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. An autologous islet transplant is a procedure pioneered at New York Presbyterian Hospital that involves infusing the patients own islet cells into the liver (in the hopes that the cells will begin producing insulin) and then removing the pancreas.
Ryan ended up with something called type 3c diabetes (indicating the diabetes was surgically induced when the pancreas, which houses the insulin-producing islet cells, was removed.) His doctor at the Berrie Center, endocrinologist Lauren Golden, MD, describes Ryan’s diabetes as similar to a newly diagnosed type 1 who is “honeymooning”, meaning some islet cells are functioning and making insulin. “Ryan’s islets are making some insulin, but the amount is too low to support his body’s needs,” said Dr. Golden. "Ryan is essentially managed like a person with type 1 diabetes. We give him supplemental dosing to make sure he has the amount of insulin he needs to thrive each day.”
Ryan first noticed his pancreatitis as a teenager growing up in Limerick, ME, but it went undiagnosed. He became a marine and a New York City police officer and it still went undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Then, about ten years ago, the pain became so intense, he had to take a leave of absence from his job as a beat cop in Manhattan. “I’ve broken bones and ruptured joints,” he recalled. “Once on active duty I had surgery done on my neck without anesthesia. None of it was remotely close to being in the same stratosphere as the pain that pancreatitis brought on.”
Ryan said he had seen more doctors at more hospitals in more states than he can remember. Then one day, his luck changed. He saw a television commercial for New York Presbyterian Hospital and ended up meeting a gastroenterologist, Amrita Sethi, MD, who happened to be doing research on an unusual genetic mutation that manifested in chronic pancreatitis. She suspected Ryan was a carrier, which he was. “After all these years, in three visits I had a diagnosis,” said Ryan.
He also met a surgeon, Beth Schrope, MD, who thought he was a strong candidate for the Islet Transplant Therapy. “Fortunately for me,” Ryan said, “the only thing left of my pancreas that was working were my islet cells.”
It took 18 months, but bounce back he did, and today Ryan has returned to his precinct in Midtown where he works. He is also winning Tae Kwon Do competitions, which he started practicing after his surgery. “One of the things I got from Dr. Golden and her team at the Berrie Center was the confidence to know that I could live a pain-free life,” said Ryan. “I didn’t know that I would be able to lead a normal, healthy and active life having diabetes. The Berrie Center also gave me the confidence to pursue things that I thought were a bit out of my reach after the transplant—and even before the transplant. I’ve been very fortunate to receive this kind of care.”
Added Dr. Golden, “Ryan is very inspiring. This is somebody who had a very active life and went through a painful, traumatic time but has been very determined to do whatever it takes to get his life back. That included surgery, a long hospital stay, learning to dose insulin and staying focused. Diabetes hasn’t prevented him from doing anything. He could have just called it quits but instead chose to really embrace his diabetes. He is a true example for others.”