IOWA CITY — A highly-specialized plastic surgeon trained in complex and rare procedures is leaving the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics next week, taking with him the state’s ability to offer an innovative reconstruction treatment for patients with lymphedema.
Dr. Wei Chen — a plastic and reconstructive surgeon at UIHC since Dec. 31, 2011 — is leaving for the Cleveland Clinic, where he’ll serve as a clinical professor and attending plastic surgery surgeon. His final day at UIHC is Tuesday, according to UIHC spokesman Tom Moore.
His current annual salary is $440,000, not including benefits, incentives, professional development support and travel reimbursements, Moore said.
The Cleveland Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center, for the 2019-2020 term ranked No. 4 overall on U.S. News & World Report’s best hospitals honor roll. It’s nationally ranked in 15 of 16 adult specialties and nine of 10 pediatric specialties.
Chen — having completed advanced microsurgical training at the world-renowned Chang Gung Memorial Hospital in Taiwan — holds a specialty focus in microsurgery and super-microsurgery and uses those complex procedures to treat patients with lymphedema, Moore said.
Lymphedema is a common side effect of breast surgery — with up to 56 percent of patients following breast cancer treatment developing the disorder, which occurs when the lymph system no longer effectively removes fluid and proteins that circulate under the skin, according to UIHC.
That failure can cause fluid retention and swelling, making limbs hard, heavy and painful.
“A limited number of plastic surgeons, including approximately eight in the U.S., perform super-microsurgical reconstruction,” Moore said.
Chen is among them.
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“None of the other plastic surgeons on the plastic surgery faculty are trained in the procedure,” Moore said.
So while UIHC will continue to offer traditional lymphedema treatments — like compression bandaging, exercises, skin care and garment pressure — it “will not be able to provide super-microsurgical reconstruction,” according to Moore.
That comes as a massive disappointment to UIHC patient Tara Armstrong, 36, who told The Gazette she has lymphedema following a double mastectomy in 2013 and multiple follow-up surgeries.
The less-invasive treatments have not helped Armstrong, of Iowa City, who said her pain and swelling keep her up at night. She was trying to get in to see Chen about super-microsurgical reconstruction when she learned he was leaving.
“I think this is a significant loss for the Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery because so many women are affected by post-op complications,” Armstrong said. “And only the University of Iowa was offering it in the state of Iowa.”
Moore confirmed UIHC is not aware of other providers in Iowa performing super-microsurgical reconstruction, which involves transplanting lymph nodes. The university years ago, in promoting the innovative procedure, shared the story of one patient who Chen treated by transplanting lymph nodes from her groin to her upper wrist.
The transfer required preservation of the lymph nodes’ blood supply, and it eventually restored lymphatic function, reducing swelling and pain.
That patient, Susan Thalken, referred to Chen as a “genius,” according to the UI Health Care communication.
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Although Iowa no longer will have a surgeon offering the procedure, the University of Chicago Medicine has one, and Moore said local patients likely would be referred there or to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota.
But that’s quite a drive for some, Armstrong said.
“That’s going to create a huge inconvenience for patients,” she said. “Where they could have had all their care in one place, that’s not an option now.”
The university is recruiting to replace Chen, according to Moore. But the hospital has not made specialty expertise in lymphedema treatment a requirement for applicants.
“However, someone with those skills would be very favorably looked upon as faculty applicants are being considered,” he said.
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