Meet Dr. Aqel, the medical director of the liver transplant program at Mayo Clinic in Arizona.
Describe your job and role on the care team.
I am a transplant hepatologist and the medical director of the liver transplant program at Mayo Clinic in Arizona. I oversee the liver transplant program and make sure we are giving access to all patients who need liver transplant, work efficiently to get patients placed on the transplant list quickly, and do our best to get patients transplanted as quickly as possible. It is a highly demanding job as our program grows to the be the largest liver transplant program in the country, while maintaining Mayo Clinic values and achieving some of the best outcomes in the U.S. I am proud to lead such an amazing team that goes above and beyond to help deliver the best care to patients with advanced liver disease.
Why did you choose this area of expertise?
As a medical student at the University of Jordan, the field of Gastroenterology became my passion as I witnessed one of the attending gastroenterologists save my father’s life when he presented with a near fatal GI bleeding related to peptic ulcer disease. Once I started my GI training, it was obvious that my second passion was liver disease and liver transplantation. It combines the best of two worlds: the thrill of complex endoscopies and the clinical practice of managing complex liver disease and getting patient through the lifesaving liver transplant surgery
If you weren’t doing this job, what would you be doing?
If I was not doing this job, I would be a soccer player and/or travel agent. Perhaps a soccer player during the day & a travel agent on the weekends. It would be my dream to play for FC Barcelona!
What is the best part about your work?
With transplant in general, the best part is witnessing the transformation that happens to a patient from their evaluation to recovery and life after transplant. Transplant medicine is one of the few subspecialties like this. It is truly like witnessing your patient going from death to life, it is so amazing and that is why organ transplantation is considered the gift of life. It is also wonderful because our transplant patients are our patients for life. Its amazing seeing them along their journey, 1 year to 5 years or more after transplant. Each year, we have a transplant reunion where our patients come and it is a bright spot in my career to see them all and how well they are doing.
What are some things you wish patients would ask you?
Our patients are always well prepared for their appointments and ask good questions. However, I would like them to be very specific about their expectations after transplantation, a list of things they expect will reverse after their transplant. Having them be well prepared as to what will get better and what won’t improve can help the entire process.
Describe one of your favorite or most rewarding clinical experiences.
The most rewarding experience overall is the annual transplant event where we invite all our transplant patients to come and speak to a large audience about how liver transplant makes such a difference. It is always a variety of patients from young teens to older individuals. I love getting to see what they are doing with their life now. I have seen patients go through medical school and become surgeons themselves.
What research have you been involved in?
I have been involved with research looking at ways to expand the donor pool to help patients have access to a transplant. A recent research study that I led was published in November 2020 in the Journal of Hepatology. This study focused on safe ways to use Hepatitis C- positive organs in transplantation. In the past, organs that were donated and tested positive for Hepatitis C were discarded in the absence of appropriate recipient with active Hepatitis C infection. However, we were able to figure that in the presence of highly effective hepatitis C, those precious organs could be safely and successfully used post-transplant. You can read more about this study here. Success in liver transplant helped us to expand the use of those organs to include kidney, heart, and lung transplants. This practice has been crucial improving access to transplant for a lot of patients who need it.
What will patients and families find at Mayo Clinic that will give them the best experience possible?
Patient and their families will find a team at Mayo Clinic. We have a stellar transplant team that includes surgeons, hepatologist, nursing teams, nutritionists, social services, psychologists who all have the same goal of making sure the experience for the patient is smooth. From the evaluation, to efficiently getting them listed to the skilled surgical team that perform their surgery every person is intricately involved in their care. We are able to perform surgery for some of the most challenging cases and still maintain some of best outcomes in the country. Mayo Clinic, as a three-site organization, is the largest transplant program in the country. In 2020, Mayo Clinic in Arizona was the #1 liver transplant program in the country by volume while also seeing some of the best liver transplant outcomes in the nation according to the Scientific Registry of Transplant Recipients.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Telling a patient that he is not candidate for liver transplant continues to be the most challenging and depressing . It is never any easy decision, and we try our best to make sure the patient and family are fully aware of the rationale behind such an important decision. These parts of my job are never easy and never will get easier
On a personal level, maintaining an acceptable work life balance continues to be a challenge for most of us. We continue to work with leadership to help achieve this balance which is crucial in reducing burn out rates among physicians.
What are your interests or passions outside of work?
Outside of work, I love travelling and love spending time with my family. Travelling with family across the world has brought us some of the best unforgettable memories. I also love to play soccer and drive fast clean cars! Those things never get boring!
What are three things you do to maintain a healthy lifestyle?
Three things I do are:
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