The inspirational founder of the now world-renowned Children’s Hospital Liver Unit, Professor Deirdre Kelly CBE, is set to retire from routine clinical care after more than three decades in Birmingham.
Professor Kelly will complete her final shift this Monday (31 May) but will continue her academic and national work, including leading a pioneering new national Hepatitis C Treatment pathway for children, as well as having more time to spend with her family, including her four grandchildren.
Her journey started at London’s Royal Free Hospital in the early 80s when, as an adult hepatologist, it was clear to her there was very little knowledge on the causes of liver disease and treatment for children. She trained under the renowned Dame Professor Sheila Sherlock before spending time at Great Ormond Street Hospital and at the University of Nebraska, USA.
Professor Kelly joined Birmingham Children’s Hospital in 1989; setting up the national paediatric Liver Unit. At that time there was much scepticism amongst the healthcare hierarchy in the UK as to whether infant liver transplantation would work and she had to battle hard to obtain funding.
She has been at the forefront of improving outcomes for young people with her team carrying out the UK’s first infant ‘cut down’ liver transplantation in 1989. She also led on the first combined infant liver and small bowel transplantation, which took place at the Children’s Hospital in 1993.
Professor Kelly CBE said: “At first, people were quite negative about the idea of infant transplantation, but we soon showed them that the process could work and used our published data and experience to convince them.
“We were a brave team of doctors, nurses and other health professionals who supported our surgeons, who were beginning to use ‘cut down’ livers from adult. This was a huge advance and allowed us to save these small sick children who not only survived the procedure but are now adults with their own lives and families.
“When I began, I wanted not just to set up the best Liver Unit in the world but also to make sure children and families felt welcomed and cared for. With the help of a marvellous team, I think we succeeded.”
Starting from humble beginnings in a Portakabin, a small team and just two beds at the former Five Ways Children’s Hospital site, the Liver Unit almost immediately started to improve the lives of children.
Within two years the survival rate of infants undergoing transplantation had increased from 40 per cent to around 90 per cent.
Today the Birmingham Children’s Hospital Liver Unit enjoys an international reputation for excellence and a dedicated and expert multi-disciplinary team of more than 50 that includes doctors, nurses, surgeons and allied health professionals, who care for hundreds of patients each year. More than 1,000 transplantation procedures have taken place to date.
Professor Kelly CBE said: “At the start, I didn’t think we would have advanced so quickly in helping patients. I have been a medical student and a doctor at a time when medicine was expanding enormously and there’s been huge expansion in molecular biology and genetics that’s really changed how we diagnose and treat patients with gene therapy, new drugs and vaccines.
“There have been huge strides made in improving things for patients and families and I’m sure that will continue.”
Throughout her distinguished career Professor Kelly, who was awarded a CBE from Her Majesty the Queen in 2016, has worked with a clear philosophy that focuses on the children and families she cares for, not just their disease.
Along with her royal recognition Professor Kelly has received many prestigious accolades over the years including the European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition (ESPGHAN) Distinguished Service Award for her outstanding contribution in her field in 2017 and the European Association for the Study of Liver (EASL) Recognition Award in 2019.
As she steps back from day-to-day clinical duties she remains committed to making further improvements to help not just children in this country but across the globe; teaching regularly internationally, particularly in developing countries.
Professor Kelly will continue to be at the forefront of research to advance treatment using genetic technology building on her work to date which has seen her work published in more than 500 books and publications.
To mark her retirement and belated 30th anniversary of the Liver Unit she recently led a special virtual conference where hepatologists and health professionals in the field joined to network and share ideas for improvement.
She was also the ‘guest of honour’ at another emotional virtual event where she was joined by patients, many now adults, and their families from across the globe whom she has helped during her career.
Professor Kelly explained: “I’m retiring from routine clinical care but will continue to use my experience to help children with liver disease. There are still a lot of exciting things coming my way. In a sense I’m ending one chapter but opening another one.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with so many fantastic colleagues and cared for so many wonderful children and families. It’s been immensely rewarding and I have learnt a lot. I take away countless memories that will stay with me forever. I will miss so many people but, as I said at my very moving virtual patient party, I want everyone to stay safe, stay well and keep taking their medicine.”