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Touched by Transplant: The Debt I Can Never Repay

My name is John Wilson. On February 8, 2020, I received two new organs. This is how I was touched by transplant.

Let’s start at the beginning so you can understand just how much receiving these organs has meant to me.

In 1998 when I was 17, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Little did I know that this diagnosis would cost me just about everything.

In 2005, I began to experience long-term complications with neuropathy in my feet and hands. By 2013, diabetes had caused my vision to become poor enough that at 32 years old, I lost my driver’s license. I experienced even more vision problems, and a year later, I could no longer work. In 2018, I was diagnosed with kidney failure.

If it sounds like I’m being a Gloomy Gus, trust me, I’m not—this is where my story turns around.

You see, not many people know that if you are a diabetic, a pancreas transplant can change your life. The pancreas is the organ that produces insulin, and if you receive a pancreas transplant, and the organ works, you are cured of type 1 diabetes.

It’s not viable for every diabetic to receive a pancreas transplant based on the lack of availability of these organs and the side effects of post-transplant anti-rejection meds. It’s also VERY difficult to get insurance to approve a single-organ pancreas transplant. If you need more than one organ, however, insurance is much more likely to approve it as a lifesaving measure.

I had two organs that weren’t working—a pancreas that had not worked for 22 years, and a kidney that was going to kick the bucket at any moment. That’s when my nephrologist (shoutout to Dr. Jeremy Sorkin at Columbia Nephrology) encouraged me to consider a double-organ transplant. In his eyes, the fact that I needed two organs was a good thing: it gave me a better chance to receive the gift of life.

The truth is that giving the gift of life is not easy, and neither is receiving it.

I am two months post-transplant now. While a person can become a living kidney donor, a pancreas is a different story: this organ must come from someone who has passed away. Because I was getting a pancreas too, my transplant team wanted me to get a kidney from the same donor to reduce my chances of rejection.

In short, I knew that someone would have to die so that I could receive these organs and live. It’s a very sobering thought.

Right now, I don’t know much about my donor. Generally, hospitals and organ sharing organizations like to give donor families at least a year to grieve before they make contact with a transplant recipient. There is one thing I do know about my donor, though: no matter what they did while they were here on Earth, they died a hero. They saved my life, and that’s a debt I can never repay.

I did get the chance to meet the person who received the other kidney from my donor while I was waiting in pre-transplant screening. We shared a moment. We were hopeful together.

Earlier, while I was on the transplant waiting list, I got the call to be the backup recipient for a pancreas and kidney. The person ahead of me was also in need of a pancreas, and they needed the transplant more than I did: they were receiving a pancreas, a liver, and an intestinal transplant all at once.

I am healthy now, and recovering well—I was lucky to get my transplant just before the COVID-19 pandemic became widespread in the U.S. I am now cured from type 1 diabetes thanks to my new pancreas, and my new kidney is functioning well, too. Fun fact: when surgeons perform this surgery, they don’t remove the old kidney or pancreas because the process is considered too invasive. So, I got “the big cut” down my stomach, and they just bolted ‘em in there.

In other words, I have two pancreases and three kidneys. Oh, and I. AM. ALIVE.

If you are reading this article, you can save a life and possibly even multiple lives.

This Donate Life Month, please become a registered organ donor. It’s as simple as checking a box, but one simple little choice can have a lasting impact in this world. When we pass, most of us want to leave a legacy. I can tell you from personal experience that I will never forget my donor, or what their legacy was to me, for as long as I live.

In addition to being a Help Hope Live client and organ donation advocate, John is a passionate member of our Gaming Committee, helping gamers to find meaningful ways to give back and spread hope. Find his Campaign Page at helphopelive.org.

Written by Emily Progin
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