KAUKAUNA, Wis. — It started at age three.
That’s when Jim Killian, now 63, learned he had Type 1 diabetes, the Post-Crescent (http://post.cr/2c9C1Jq ) reported.
The retired machinist spent nearly a lifetime managing the autoimmune disease. He used an insulin pump, took daily injections, underwent eye surgery, monitored his diet and developed an exercise routine — all to protect his body from further damage. At one point, he was legally blind.
It was a constant battle for Killian.
Then, last August, he began dialysis after his kidneys started to fail. The pair of organs were functioning at six to eight percent.
But on June 18, his life changed dramatically in a matter of hours after undergoing a pancreas and kidney transplant in Madison.
Hours after the surgery, Killian was up walking around. Six days later, he was released from the hospital. Today, he has three kidneys and two pancreases.
And after six decades of insulin dependency, Killian no longer has diabetes.
Since his surgery, he hasn’t taken insulin shots or used an insulin pump. He’s slowly being weaned off medications, and his diet “is back to what a normal individual’s would be.” He only checks his blood-sugar level once a day instead of the eight times he did before his transplant.
“It’s just miraculous,” said Joan Jenkins, Killian’s 84-year-old mother. “We never thought anything like that was possible. It’s like a whole new life for him.”
Killian calls the June transplant day “life-changing.” And he’s hopeful more people become donors so other diabetics can experience similar success.
“Without the donations I received, I wouldn’t be doing as well as I’m doing,” he said.
At age 11, Killian attended a 10-day diabetic boys camp near Milwaukee. There, he learned how to manage his diet and prepare insulin shots.
Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, is usually diagnosed in children and young adults, according to the American Diabetes Association. Those who suffer from the illness are unable to produce insulin, a hormone that the body requires to allow glucose, or sugar, from the bloodstream into the cells of the body.
With Type 2 diabetes, the more common form, the body cannot use insulin properly. The pancreas creates too much insulin; over time, the pancreas is unable to make enough of the hormone to regulate glucose levels.
According to 2015 ADA data, more than 11 percent of Wisconsin’s population has diabetes. Diabetes costs the state about $5.9 billion a year.
Type 2 is “one of the top chronic illnesses that we treat,” Dr. Deb Ihde, an internal medicine physician at ThedaCare Physicians-Internal Medicine in Appleton. “It’s not necessarily unique to this area, but it’s really an epidemic in this country.”
For both types, but especially Type 2, genetics can play a role in whether someone develops the chronic condition. But lifestyle choices, such as diet and exercise, can help patients manage it.
Killian’s 38-year-old son was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at age four. But no other immediate family members have the autoimmune illness.
When doctors diagnosed Killian in the mid-1950s, he was the family doctor’s first diabetes patient, Jenkins recalled..
“We knew nothing about this chronic disease,” she said.
But the family learned “very quickly” how to manage the condition, mostly through trial and error. Killian’s parents boiled needles and syringes in distilled water and learned how to track calories. A Kaukauna High School employee kept a box of sugar cubes nearby in case Killian’s glucose levels dropped too low.
In the early 1980s, Killian started to exercise more regularly; a running hobby developed. Running “really helped the diabetes,” he said, but damage had already started to his vision. He would have laser treatments to stop blood vessels from growing inside his eyes. In January and March of 1988, he had scar tissue removed from his eyes.
He ran in marathons in 1993 and 1994. By that time, though, he already had nerve damage in his legs. In 1998, he started using an insulin pump, a device that delivers rapid or short-acting insulin through a catheter under the skin.
Kidney issues began in the 2000s and progressed to kidney failure last year. Despite the disease’s toll on his body, Killian said he did a “good job” managing his health.
“For somebody to be insulin dependent for 60 years is quite rare,” he said.
Killian made his first trek to University Hospital in Madison last April. That’s when he first met Jon Odorico, professor of surgery at UW Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health, to discuss an organ transplant
As of March 2014, the UW Health Transplant Program has performed more than 12,000 transplants, the most popular being kidney and pancreas surgeries.
Odorico said Killian was an “ideal candidate” for a transplant due to the stage of his diabetes and his understanding of the recovery process.
“There might be some centers where he would have aged out, but we felt it was a good option for him,” Odorico said.
The purpose of the double organ transplant is for the diabetes to disappear. A patient’s new pancreas begins working immediately to produce insulin, and within hours after the surgery, a patient can be free from insulin therapy, Odorico said. He said 98 percent of patients “come off insulin and go home off insulin.”
And if all goes well, a patient can return to normal activity within several months. The double transplant can help those with both types of diabetes, Odorico said.
Killian waited 14 months for his organs. He received a call on June 17 — the night of his 45th high school reunion — that an out of state cadaver kidney and pancreas were available. The transplant took place the next day.
“He’s taken good care of himself,” Odorico said. “More and more patients with diabetes are living to his age.”
Several weeks after the transplant, Tom Nagan and his wife ran into Killian while walking near Killian’s home.
“He seemed a little winded,” Nagan, a Little Chute resident and high school friend of Killian, recalled. “I said, ‘You’ve got to take it easy. You just recovered from surgery.’ And (Jim) said, ‘I just walked up to Piggly Wiggly and had three cupcakes.'”
Since the surgery, Jon Monroe, another friend of Killian, said he’s noticed a “visible change in (Killian’s) state of being.”
“I’ve never seen a guy with his chin up higher,” he said.
A new chapter in his life ahead of him, Killian said he has several goals: spend time with his 11-year-old grandson, take care of his wife, Donna, who suffers from dementia, and find a way to educate others about diabetes and organ donations.
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, more than 120,000 people nationwide require a lifesaving organ transplant. Of those, more than 77,000 are active waiting list candidates.
In Wisconsin, about 2,300 people are on the organ transplant waiting list, according to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. More than 3 million Wisconsin residents are organ, tissue and eye donors.
“I would encourage people to think hard about doing a donation,” he said.
With her son’s transplant, Jenkins said she has the “satisfaction to know that he can enjoy the rest of his life,” as long as he stays healthy.
“I’m just glad I’m here to see this happen,” she said.
Information from: Post-Crescent Media, http://www.postcrescent.com
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