Dr. Sayeed Malek (pictured) and Dr. Stefan Tullius performed the first pancreas transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

In terms of physical distance, John McDermott, 62, didn’t have to venture very far to become the first pancreas transplant recipient at Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH).

John was sitting at his desk at Boston Children’s Hospital, where he has worked as a pharmacist for more than 40 years, when he received the call in the spring of 2007 to come to BWH for a new pancreas. He could have hung up the phone and immediately walked to the BWH operating room across the street, but that would have led to many anxious hours waiting for his new pancreas and the surgical team to be ready. Instead, he drove a few miles to his home in the Savin Hill neighborhood of Dorchester to wait with his wife Chris and have a bite to eat before heading back to BWH.

He had a right to be anxious. He had been living with type 1 diabetes since he was 14 years old, and now he had the opportunity to eliminate a condition that not only reduced his quality of life, but was, in his case, also life threatening.

John says that treating diabetes in the 1960s involved more guesswork than it does today. “There was no way to really tell what your blood sugars were unless you went into the hospital to have a blood test done,” he explains. “You were giving yourself insulin and hoping that you wouldn’t have an insulin reaction. You really didn’t have a good idea of where you were at.”

An insulin reaction (hypoglycemic attack) is caused by excessively low blood sugars. Fortunately, John only experienced occasional, mild insulin reactions during high school and college. After college, however, his insulin reactions continued to build in both number and severity. “If that continued, I probably wouldn’t have made it through every one of them,” says John.

The danger of these reactions lies in their unpredictability and the need for immediate treatment. Adding to the danger, John says that as the years passed he gradually lost the ability to perceive the onset of attacks.

In severe cases, failure to restore normal blood sugar levels in a timely manner may lead to unconsciousness, seizures, coma, or even death. In some cases, even when a patient maintains consciousness, the loss of mental and physical control that can occur poses a great danger not only to the patient but to others as well. John describes this loss of control as being on autopilot. He had an automobile accident during one such attack, but, fortunately, neither he nor anyone else was seriously hurt.

“You see yourself doing it, and you know something’s wrong,” he explains. “But you can’t fix it.”

In 2005, John’s kidneys failed, not unusual for a diabetic. Shortly after, thanks to a donated kidney from his wife, John (then 56) had a successful kidney transplant at BWH. He was then asked whether he would be interested in getting screened as a candidate for BWH’s new Pancreas Transplant Program. He and his wife were enthusiastic.

“My wife encouraged me toward the transplant,” John says. “She was dealing with all the insulin reactions, and didn’t know what to expect from one moment to the next.”

At the time, John was older than the recommended upper age threshold for receiving a new pancreas, so he had to go through extra tests in order to be approved. He passed all the tests and was added to the waiting list. About a year later, to his surprise, he received the call that a matching pancreas was available for him.

John admits that the first few weeks after the surgery were difficult, but well worth the life that has followed. He now often walks across the street to BWH to talk to pancreas transplant candidates about the potential benefits that one day may also come to them, and the struggles to expect beforehand. He also remains aware of and grateful for the generosity of the donor’s family.

“It’s a tough procedure to go through,” says John. “But to me and my family, it was lifesaving.”

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– Chris P.

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