January 4, 2016

Jan 2, 2016: My 6 Year Pancreas Transplant Anniversary

Exactly 6 years ago, in the early morning of January 2, 2010, I was on the operating table, in Minneapolis, at the University of Minnesota, Fairview, about to undergo a pancreas transplantation. I was on the finish line of a very long race that had given me a number of curveballs on the way.

I was diagnosed with T1D at the age of 16, and had already undergone a kidney transplant 9 months earlier due to complications of my diabetes, and my eyes had been treated multiple times with aggressive, destructive laser therapy to save my vision.

After 20 years with diabetes, I had forgotten what it was like to live without thinking about sugar levels and insulin dosing since my very being was contingent upon injections several times daily, and glucose measuring even more often.

In the late evening on Dec 30, 2009, the attending doctor on the Minnesota transplant watch called me with the message – “there is a match, you better get here soon to receive your new pancreas.” At the time my sister Anna and I were having a holiday cocktail and some appetizers, but we immediately paid the check and dashed home to prepare. I had a bag packed that just sat in my apartment, and I constantly carried the plane schedule to Minneapolis with me. It was an anxious wait that was about to end. I was excited and nervous. This kind of surgery is not done often, a few 100 procedures per year in the US, many of them in Minneapolis, which had made my decision to choose this location easy. I had spoken at length with my surgeon, Dr David Sutherland, who is a world-leader and innovator in the transplant surgery business.

Upon arrival on December 31, I was immediately taken to the transplant ward for preparations and soon moved into pre-op while waiting for the surgeons to get ready.  Dr Sutherland walked into my cubicle in his dinner jacket looking dapper enough to be on his way to a New year’s eve party and said “there will be no surgery tonight – the pancreas does not look good enough.” I was devastated, but completely understood his decision. There is no way one can undergo serious surgery, literally stapling a new piece of intestine and a pancreas onto my small intestine, without knowing that the organ is in good shape. I got dressed and went out to dinner, it was after all, New Year’s Eve 2009.

The following day after deciding to stay around for a while, since I was now on top of the transplant list, we went shopping in Minneapolis, but eventually decided to sit down for lunch and ordered oysters and champagne, trying to embrace the holiday season while being far away from home and suddenly we got a call. This was it – a new pancreas was on its way to Minneapolis, and I was the next person on the list. We finished our lunch, I did not eat any oysters, nor did I have any champagne, since I was now on pre-op fast, and then we slowly walked back to the hotel in the freezing cold. Going to bed before the procedure was hard, I was nervous the second pancreas would not be good enough either, and I started to realize what a huge surgery I was going to go through. My parents were in Spain at the time, celebrating the holidays with my other sister, Lisa, and her family, but they were notified and were already on a flight back to the US.

The pancreas came from a young woman who had died of an asthma attack, and I thank her family each day for their sacrifice. I tend to believe she is in a better place and is watching over me and our pancreas. Early morning, January 2, 2010, we were back in the pre-op room, and this time Dr Sutherland came in to see us in his scrubs and was smiling. “The pancreas looks good!”

I will never forget waking up after the 7 hr long procedure and hearing that it had gone well. The pancreas was already providing me with insulin and within hours the insulin drip would be shut off and I was for the first time in almost 21 years producing my own insulin. However, the pain, nausea and weakness were great due to the very significant surgery involved. This incision was not done by minimal surgery, but I have a vertical scar from my belly bottom to my pelvic bone, and the recovery took much longer than the kidney transplant 9 months earlier.

However, the change was even more dramatic than after the kidney – from the day after surgery, I have not needed one insulin injection and my HbA1c has been around 5, with fasting glucose levels around 70. The pancreas from the young woman completely changed the course of my life. I have become a healthier person both physically and mentally.

It is difficult to explain the joys of being insulin independent beyond the obvious ones, but it is really about the small things. Not having to carry around all my diabetes devices, to simply walk down the street and decide on a whim to sit down for lunch or a cup of tea with a cookie and indulging without having to prepare and thinking how much insulin is required, or going to sleep and not be afraid of waking up in cold sweat and having to address a hypo. Equally important is also the mental and psychological stability that improved for me after the pancreas, since my mood swings, unexplained fatigue and periods of sadness disappeared after correcting my glucose excursions. Most importantly though was my renewed confidence in a future. Today, on the 6th anniversary of my pancreas transplant, I am full of joy and hopes for tomorrow and beyond.

At Lyfebulb we want to bring this sense of well-being, love for life and self-belief to everyone with diabetes. That is why we work so hard in connecting people on and offline, and in working with industry to identify needs that truly make a difference to people with the disease and secondly to bring better products to people living with diabetes NOW.