A 3-year-old boy now has a much better chance at a long life thanks to a breakthrough procedure at the University of Minnesota that will help him overcome chronic pancreatitis.
The procedure itself isn't what is astounding -- the U pioneered it 40 years ago and has been performing it on older children for 20. However, it's never been done on a 3-year-old before.
While it may seem like a burden to need morphine, an insulin pump, and a feeding tube fed from a backpack, the playful boy and his hopeful parents welcome the hope it carries.
"It's going to be a long process," Sheila Williamson acknowledged. "We have no misconceptions about that."
David Elijah Williamson, who goes by the nickname Ijah, used to love to eat.
"His first birthday party, he was eating ribs," Sheila Williamson recalled. "Chewing on ribs, and eating birthday cake."
Before he would reach his next birthday, that all changed.
"By the time he was 17 months old, he wouldn't eat anything, and by February, we had to put a feeding tube in," Sheila Williamson said.
Ijah was diagnosed with chronic pancreatitis, a genetic disorder that meant his pancreas always hurt and he never wanted to eat.
"They anticipated his pancreas failing eventually, and when his pancreas fails -- instantly, you become what's called a brittle diabetic," Tim Williamson explained.
In 2012, Ijah spent 67 days in the hospital -- admitted every time the pancreatitis flared up. As an child growing up with autism, that made the ordeal even more difficult.
"I can't tell him it's going to make it better. I can't tell him, 'Just a little bit longer. Hold on. There's an end to it,'" Tim Williamson said. "He doesn't understand any of it."
Yet, the operation he needed to get back to normalcy had never been done anywhere on anyone so young.
"He's probably the youngest in the whole world that has received this procedure," Dr. Srinath Chinnakolta confirmed.
In the summer, the family from Washington State traveled to the University of Minnesota's Amplatz Children's Hospital so that the boy could undergo the procedure the U pioneered.
"A lot of the surgeons in the country -- and a lot of the programs in the country -- are very scared or hesitant to do small children," Chinnakolta told FOX 9 News. "Two years ago, I wouldn't have even thought of doing this."
Yet, with confidence it could be done in a 2-year-old, Chinnakolta decided to take what he describes as a "bold step" to help Ijah.
The procedure is called TPAIT, and surgeons removed Ijah's pancreas to stop his pain before transplanting islet cells -- those that make insulin -- into his liver. There, the cells will set up shot and begin to make insulin again.
Without the cell transplant, Ijah probably wouldn't live past 20. Now, the Williamsons are hopeful for more years -- and that Ijah's success will pave the way for other young patients who need treatment.
"He's doing good. We are very happy with the results thus far," Sheila Williamson said.
Tim and Sheila Williamson plan to move to the Twin Cities permanently to be closer to Ijah's doctors, and also to provide support to other families who will come to the U for the same treatment.