March 15, 2022

Providing healing and hope in Transplantation Surgery, Dr. Jayme Locke

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In each installment of the Heersink School of Medicine Office for Diversity and Inclusion’s Women’s History Month series, there has been a focus on featuring women who are making history by providing healing and hope. 

This week, the office—in partnership with the department of surgery—recognizes Director of the Division of Transplantation and Arnold G. Diethelm Endowed Chair in Transplantation Surgery Jayme Locke, M.D., MPH.Locke WHM Article ImageJayme Locke, M.D., MPH

Too often in our history as a nation, the achievements of women have been underrecognized and overshadowed. Across the Heersink School of Medicine, women are making history every day through innovation, research discoveries, and clinical advancement.

Locke is a tenured professor and an abdominal transplant surgeon who specializes in innovative strategies for the transplantation of incompatible organs, disparities in access to and outcomes after solid organ transplantation, and transplantation of HIV-infected end-stage patients. Her research interests include complex statistical analysis and modeling of transplant outcomes and behavioral research focused on health disparities.

Locke is the recipient of numerous honors. She has most recently received the Association for Clinical & Translational Science (ACTS) Distinguished Investigator Award: Translation into Public Benefit and Policy and the American Society of Transplantation (AST) Clinical Science Investigator Award, and admitted to the American Society for Clinical Investigation (ASCI).

Earlier this year, Locke made national and international headlines, alongside her transplant team, for conducting the first clinical-grade transplant of gene-edited pig kidneys into a brain-dead human in the world. The pig kidneys transplanted were taken from pigs that had been genetically modified with 10 key gene edits that may make the kidneys suitable for transplant into humans.

Their procedure answered key safety and feasibility questions and demonstrated how such a transplant might work in the real world. The research helps pave the way for moving xenotransplantation into living persons in the context of a phase I clinical trial.  

But, before she began her illustrious career as a transplant surgeon who makes history, Locke had other ideas for her career path. As a child, Locke had an idea for what she wanted to be when she was grown up, as we all do. She first wanted to be the ring leader of a circus.

As she advanced through grade school, Locke began to contemplate a new career path. She began to notice she was good at science and math. Brain transplant surgeon was her next stop. As a budding scientist, even then, she hypothesized it may provide a cure for mean people,  but she soon discovered that brain transplantation was not a real thing, well…yet. So, Locke thought about pediatrics.

“I never realized all the different paths that there are within the field of medicine,” said Locke. “And, I identify with individuals not being able to envision themselves in a career path that they have not had familiarity with, because it’s hard to become something that you can’t see.”

As a child, she was also highly interested in Duke University. She even wrote to Duke Men’s Basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski (“Coach K”), who wrote her back. When she graduated high school, there was only one place to attend for undergrad: Duke University.

Locke completed her undergraduate degree in biology and chemistry at Duke University and then went on to complete her medical degree at East Carolina University, prior to matriculating to Johns Hopkins Hospital where she received training in general surgery and multi-visceral abdominal transplantation.

As a third-year medical student, Locke fell in love with the surgical rotation. The physicians were practicing on such a high level that required advanced skills and training that not just anyone could do. In medical school, she observed her first kidney transplant. She saw that the surgeons were able to fix someone in such a gratifying, immediate way, and Locke was hooked.

During her general surgery residency training intern year, Locke rotated on transplant. She was blown away by the hope that surgeons were able to give their patients with end-stage diseases. By their operations, physicians could actually cure the patient’s disease and change the life of their patient for the better and also the lives that the patient touched–their family and friends.

Next, Locke completed her Master of Public Health degree with an emphasis in biostatistics and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She joined the UAB Heersink School of Medicine faculty in 2012.

On her trailblazing path, Locke has not always had it easy. Throughout her career, Locke says she has had male colleagues question her abilities to be a surgeon, and in particular a transplant surgeon.

“I just remember thinking, ‘This isn’t the 1950’s,’” said Locke. “Early in my career, and still today, surgical sponsorship and mentorship occurred in places that women are not allowed (e.g. men’s locker room) and during activities that tend to be geared more toward men.”

“As women leaders, we do not have as much leeway to stand our ground and speak our minds. We do not have the same amount of space as men to get upset or show our feelings. It can be an unforgiving environment.”

Particularly for many female surgeons, Locke notes that they feel they are faced with a choice– surgical training or starting a family. Some female surgeons use family planning in their quest to balance family and career, choosing to time their pregnancy with research years. Unfortunately, as surgical trainees, most women are only granted about two months of maternity leave, or else they will not get credit for that training year.

“We’ve got to create more opportunities for women who want both a surgical career and a family. It shouldn’t have to be a choice,” said Locke. “A majority of childcare burden still falls on women in an unequal way.”

What are some ways that the Heersink School of Medicine and other medical schools across the nation could address this inequality? Locke suggests affordable childcare option for surgical trainees, including both residents and fellows. UAB already offers many childcare resources, but most have months-long waiting lists and a hefty price tag. 

As for the state of women in surgery as a whole, Locke says that things are improving, thanks in part to leadership like Fay Fletcher Kerner Endowed Chair of Surgery Herbert Chen, M.D. She notes that UAB is progressing in key arenas for diversity, and is particularly proud of the momentum to eliminate gender bias in the Department of Surgery.

“Herb has been instrumental in growing the number of female trainees within our general surgery residency program and our faculty members. His influence has been substantial in many ways. He has set the bar for building a critical mass, and now there’s much less room for those dissenting thoughts.”

In addition to her xenotransplant endeavors, Locke has been busy at work during her time at UAB. Alongside her team, she has built the most comprehensive incompatible transplant program through the Comprehensive Transplant Institute (CTI), which has been key in establishing the nation’s longest ever kidney chain. Recently, the CTI reached a milestone of 16,000+ transplants.

Plus, Locke has advocated both in research and clinical application for expansion of the potential organ transplant donor pool, performing the Deep South’s first HIV-positive kidney transplant from an HIV-positive deceased donor alongside the late transplant giant Mark Deierhoi, M.D.

In giving her interview, Locke always used the word “we” instead of “I” when referring to her accomplishments. When asked, Locke said a rising tide lifts all ships.

“The field of surgery can be so competitive, and it’s important to remember that women have to look out for and sponsor each other,” said Locke. “Without each member of the CTI and Division of Transplantation team, these accomplishments would not have been possible. I’m grateful to our team of physicians, nurses, admin, and more. I look forward to all that we will accomplish in coming years.”

Locke closed her interview by giving one last piece of advice.

“This goes not just for women, but for people everywhere,” said Locke. “Find what you’re most passionate about and do that. You will find that you’re fulfilled and it doesn’t feel like you’re working. Anything is possible, though it may take a little longer and you might have more ahead of you than you realized. Whatever you choose, don’t let anyone sway you from it.”