Transplant surgeon gets a kick out of his reputation as red Crocs doc

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He’s a scientist and a surgeon, and one day Dr. Burcin Ekser hopes his research leads to a 3-D printed liver for kids and adults.


By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist, mgilmer1@iuhealth.org

For Dr. Burcin Ekser, his red Crocs and scrubs go together like peanut butter and jelly.

The transplant surgeon for Riley Hospital for Children and IU Health University Hospital has been wearing his signature shoes in clinic since long before he started as a transplant fellow with IU School of Medicine in 2012.

It’s all about the comfort and the color. “I’ve always liked color,” he said, “and red is my favorite.”

Dr. Ekser, who specializes in liver and intestinal transplants for pediatric and adult patients, didn’t know what to think when colleagues presented him with the Red Shoes Award for outstanding accomplishments and contributions to family-centered care at Riley Hospital last year.

“When my chief told me I got that award, I didn’t know what it was at first. It is funny because I am known as the red Crocs doctor by a lot of families.”

He was honored when he learned the real reason behind the award.

The Red Shoes Award Program, headed by NICU Family Support director Susan Henderson-Sears, was inspired by the family of a former Riley patient-turned-Riley-nurse who died in 2001. The red shoes refer to a character in a book who wore her favorite red Mary Jane shoes into the operating room.

Married and the father of two, Dr. Ekser said his children have made him a better physician.

“They help me understand the pediatric population better now,” he said. “I have more empathy. Being a parent changes everything.”

In his work, he sees the strength of pediatric patients. Kids bear the pain of surgery better than adults, and they recover faster, he said. After transplant, as the color begins to return to their skin, “they suddenly start smiling again, they’re happy and active,” he said.

“That is what I like. If everything goes well, we can send them home in five to six days after transplant. I like to see them grow. After a few years, we don’t even recognize them. They’re a completely different person. They’re happier, they’re back in school. That’s amazing to see – how they build a new life.”

As assistant professor of surgery and director of transplant research and the Xenotransplantation Research Lab, Dr. Ekser spends his time outside his clinical duties diving into research, specifically in the development of 3-D bio-printed human liver models.

He received the 2019 American Society of Transplant Surgeons Foundation Faculty Development Grant ($100,000) for his work in creating the mini liver models.

“If we can 3-D bio-print models of different liver diseases, we will have a tool to understand what is the marker or gene that triggers these diseases, and we can study potential drugs to treat them,” Dr. Ekser told IU School of Medicine’s Christine Drury last year. “If we can use this technology to overcome different liver diseases, transplants may be needed for fewer people in the future.”

Currently, there is no treatment for end-stage liver disease except for transplant, Dr. Ekser said.

“With end-stage kidney disease, you can survive with dialysis. With liver disease, there is no option.”

Because of a shortage of liver donations, not everyone can receive a lifesaving transplant, so the surgeon and scientist hopes one day to be able to print human-size organs. That day could be decades away, but if scientists can print a liver for transplant using a patient’s own stem cells, it would eliminate the need for anti-rejection medicines, he said.

“The technology is advancing very fast.”

In the meantime, the transplant team is able to use one lobe of an adult deceased liver for transplant into a child. Partial living liver transplants (possible because the liver regenerates itself) have recently been approved for IU Health, but the COVID-19 virus pandemic has put all but the most critical transplants on hold for now. Currently, the transplant team is building a wait list of patients for living liver transplants.

Dr. Ekser attended medical school at the University of Istanbul in Turkey and the University of Padua in Italy, finishing his residency in Padua. He earned his research doctorate in Italy and at the University of Pittsburgh.

Photos by Mike Dickbernd, IU Health visual journalist, mdickbernd@iuhealth.org

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