When recalling the earliest memory in her life, she can only remember waking up in the hospital to hear she had Type 1 brittle diabetes.
At age 5, Patricia Kearney didn’t know this disease would require enduring three organ transplants, agonizing dialysis, endless glucose tablets and fighting to keep blood sugar levels at bay to reduce risky complications.
Fast forward 50 years, and Patricia recently celebrated her 56th birthday in the hospital, just days after a life-saving kidney and pancreas transplant at Scott & White Memorial Hospital – Temple.
“It was always one of my deepest dreams to be free from diabetes,” Patricia said. “It was one of those dreams I never told anyone and sometimes felt I wasn’t deserving of, and so I can’t believe it happened for me.”
This transplant was the most critical of all of her surgeries, as her health was failing fast. To prepare and strengthen her body, Patricia completed the Baylor Scott & White Training for Transplant program, as its first certified graduate.
“Training for Transplant pushed me to overcome some of the obstacles I had and made sure I was healthy enough to do well through the transplant,” Patricia said.
The Training for Transplant program is the brainchild of Jacqueline Lappin, MD, FACS, FRCSI, transplantation surgeon and surgical director of the kidney/pancreas transplant program at Scott & White Memorial Hospital – Temple. The program offers ongoing meetings with providers to improve certain lifestyle factors, such as improved diet or exercise. The training also monitors progress and consults about the potential timeline of transplantation.
“Too often, we see patients who have been declined for transplant at multiple centers because they are obese, frail or deconditioned,” said Debra Doherty, MD, living and related donor kidney transplantation director. “They have been told to reapply for transplant when they have improved, but this isn’t so simple for a patients whose organs and health are failing.”
The Training for Transplant program is a multidisciplinary program in which patients meet with the transplant surgeon and dietitian at three to six month intervals to provide goals and encouragement.
“We work closely with the patients to discover what obstacles they are facing and how we can overcome them together,” Dr. Doherty said.
The end result is a patient who receives a life-saving transplant.
“For me it meant starting to walk, and making sure I had the right shoes,” Patricia said. “When my doctors would present recommendations, they weren’t difficult, so I just tried doing everything they asked, because I know they know better than I do.”
50+ Years of Transplant Involvement
Patricia humbly laughs when asked about her involvement in the transplant community. For years she has volunteered in advocacy groups and participated in public speaking engagements to nurses. She is very aware that April is Donate Life month, and feels privileged to be a part of the transplant community.
“This isn’t my first time around the block, but things change,” Patricia said. “That’s why I was open to what my doctors needed me to do to prepare for surgery this time.”
Patricia’s first kidney and pancreas transplant in 1990 was a relatively new surgery at the time. She was 30, and almost four years after, she was married to her supportive husband Dan. He was active duty military and met Gregory J. Jaffers, MD, now director of the division of transplant surgery in Central Texas at Baylor Scott & White Health.
“The minute I shook his hand I don’t remember seeing his eyes, I only remember looking at his hand,” Patricia said. “I knew I could trust him with my life.”
Patricia received a kidney and pancreas transplant from a generous donor family. In the years before the transplant, she had experienced episodes of ketoacidosis, diabetic complications often related to stress. Her first episode occurring at age 16, after her dad endured two heart attacks on the same day, and several more because stress wreaks havoc on glucose levels. Even the wonderful event of marriage sent her back to the hospital with another episode or two.
After the transplant, Patricia felt better almost immediately. She was thankful she did not have to endure dialysis. She was free. Her organs were no longer struggling, and her diabetes was under control.
Seven years later, she experienced a few complications and received a kidney from her husband Dan in 1997. Moving forward, the couple were in good spirits, traveling, attending weddings, holding jobs, participating in donor awareness and enjoying retirement.
“Little did I know my pancreas would quit working in 2013, just short of 23 years with it,” Patricia said. “I was crying because it was like losing a child.”
At the time, Patricia was living in San Antonio but was determined to consult with Dr. Jaffers, as her trusted surgeon. He referred Patricia to Jacqueline Lappin, MD, FACS, FRCSI, a transplantation surgeon on the medical staff at Scott & White Memorial Hospital – Temple. Dan and Patty would drive in from San Antonio for appointments or dialysis, sometimes leaving as early as 4:30 a.m., and came home the same day.
Due to Patricia’s increased age, low weight and health complications, Dr. Lappin determined it wasn’t quite time for the active transplantation list, but suggested the Training for Transplant program.
Patricia worked hard to regain her strength and stayed in close contact with care providers. She started dialysis on Jan. 12, and celebrated her 55th birthday in the dialysis center four days later. She was receiving help for her failing organs, yet she still felt miserable. At this point, she was taking dozens of glucose tablets to feel coherent, with her levels dropping as low as 39 but still functioning (the normal glucose levels is between 80 and 120). Her diabetes was growing more severe.
“Thankfully, after the program, they felt that I was strong enough that they would consider listing me as a recipient for a pancreas and a kidney,” Patricia said. “Dr. Lappin took very good care of me and is always far too modest in all that she’s done.”
Patricia was listed active for transplantation on Dec. 21, the day of her and Dan’s 29th wedding anniversary. Three weeks later, she received the life-changing call that a donor was available. This time, her January birthday was certainly one to celebrate.
“From a patient standpoint, they saved my life, so thank you isn’t adequate.”
“The thing I have learned from working with donor families over the years, is all they want to hear is thank you—they just want that gift to be acknowledged,” Patricia said. “From a patient standpoint they saved my life, so thank you isn’t adequate.”
Dan and Patty are overwhelmed with joy, with tears in their eyes for their new life together. Dan had made burial plans for his wife just months ago, and now she is feeling healthy and completely rid of her diabetes medications.
They feel it is their job to be a good steward to the gift that they’ve been given. An organ donation impacts the entire family.
“There are no words to express the gratitude I feel, especially this time,” Patricia said. “I never thought I’d get another chance.”