Relocating to a new city always has its challenges – leaving family and friends, favorite hangouts, your regular hair stylist or gym, the comfort that comes with familiar faces and places. For those who have complex health care needs, that comfort often includes physicians.
So when Jill Tannheimer, a transplant recipient, left the Milwaukee area to live in several others cities nearly 19 years ago, she still wanted to stay connected with her Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) physician team, though she couldn't have regular visits to anyone's office. So her doctors, including most recently Talal Rashid Khairi, MD, assistant professor of nephrology at MCW, decided to bring news about Tannheimer's health to her.
"When he called me, I could hear his children's voices in the background," Tannheimer recalls. "It meant so much to me that he cared enough to call me personally to share updates about my health."
Tannheimer's care was complex because she received a double transplant – a kidney-pancreas transplant – in 1992. But instead of leaving her Froedtert & MCW transplant and nephrology team behind when she moved, Tannheimer arranged for them to receive her monthly labs so they could continue to help manage her care during the 17-year period when she was living in other cities. Her team coordinated her care with nephrologists she saw in other cities, and Jill returned to MCW each year for annual visits.
"I called Jill because I wanted to get in touch with her nephrologist to discuss details of her care," Dr. Khairi says. "Every patient is important to us at MCW. It is an honor that our patients trust us with their care, so I make myself available whenever they need me. Each time I received Jill's labs while she was living in other cities, I gave her a call to discuss the results. I tell my patients, 'I'm taking care of you the same way I'd want someone to take care of my own family member.'"
Tannheimer says she experienced this level of personal care from her entire Froedtert & MCW transplant team and through her follow-up care over the last 25 years since her transplant. Her doctors, nurses and her transplant coordinator make her feel like an important member of her care team, from calling her with updates to allowing her visits from her beloved dog, Muffin, when she has been hospitalized.
"Those kinds of gestures have made me feel like I have never just been a number there; the care I have received is simply outstanding," she says.
Tannheimer has had a long and complex road with several health obstacles. Her story began with a diagnosis of diabetes when she was a child. She was able to manage her diabetes for years, but as an adult, she began noticing gradual but extreme swelling in her feet and ankles, progressing from a size 8 shoe to a size 11.
Tannheimer was referred to the nephrology team at MCW, and they found her kidney function was declining. Her doctors informed her that her body was retaining too much water, with 15 to 20 percent of her total weight being excess water weight. She began hemodialysis in 1990, which helped remove toxins and excess water from her body.
Hemodialysis is a time-intensive process requiring patients to come to Froedtert Hospital and be hooked up to a dialysis machine, usually for four hours each session. In Tannheimer's case, she came to the hospital three times per week. Switching to peritoneal dialysis gave her more freedom because it did not require weekly dialysis appointments; Tannheimer could go about her daily activities and perform the necessary fluid exchanges herself at home.
Still, Tannheimer and her doctors knew she could not receive dialysis forever. She had been put on the organ waitlist in 1991, and a year later, Tannheimer received the call there was a kidney and pancreas available for her. While her new pancreas functioned well, there were complications with her new kidney and she required a second transplant surgery with another kidney. This time, the procedure worked perfectly.
"My life totally changed after that," Tannheimer says. "When I was younger, I tried hard to be normal and fit in and work and live life as normally as possible around my health issues. But after my transplant, I didn't have to try so hard anymore. My life totally changed for the better. I will always be thankful for the wonderful care I received at MCW from the doctors, nurses and entire team that was there for me. I am here today because of the great medical team I had at MCW, my loving and supportive family and God helping me through this journey."
Tannheimer’s new organs have performed well for the past 25 years, which Dr. Khairi attributes to her excellent care, her good attitude and her compliance with her care team's instructions.
"For a transplanted pancreas to work so long is atypical and unusual, but the credit goes to Jill for doing the right thing," Dr. Khairi says. "She has been diligent about taking her medications and does her blood work regularly. Jill has a wonderful, positive attitude and does whatever it takes to remain in good health. She is an outstanding patient, and that's one of the big reasons she’s done so well."
Dr. Khairi says the foundation of a good patient-doctor relationship is built on trust. Trust is something he and his team work hard to establish with each of their patients, with the ultimate goal of improving their health and their lives. Tannheimer says she has benefitted from her team's approach to patient care.
"I have a fruitful life," she says. "I was able to maintain a rigorous work schedule for a long time that required me to travel. Now that I'm enjoying retirement, I am able to take care of my home, my husband and my dog."
Tannheimer's experience at MCW was so positive, it was one of the reasons, in addition to being closer to family, Jill and her husband decided to move back to the Milwaukee area after living in Florida. They settled in to Franklin, Wisconsin, and Tannheimer's husband, James, got a position at MCW as the Human Resources Director of Physician Recruitment. Today, he is able to help contribute to making MCW a place where doctors and their patients continue building relationships on trust.
"Jill is just a wonderful person," Dr. Khairi concludes. "I've never seen a frown on her face; she's always smiling, and it makes my heart smile as well. Taking care of my patients is a privilege, and patients like Jill are an inspiration and reminder to me to always work hard on their behalf."