Curing Diabetes with a Triple Transplant
Jan 29, 2018 Cedars-Sinai Staff
When Jim Stavis was 17, he was told he'd be lucky to live past his 50th birthday.
At that time, Jim was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Doctors expected Jim to be plagued by kidney and heart disease, blindness, and amputation before succumbing to diabetes at a young age.
While some of that prognosis turned out to be true, organ transplants have enabled Jim to not only survive, but flourish.
In 2005, at age 50, Jim received a heart and kidney transplant at Cedars-Sinai. He got a new pancreas a year later.
In December 2017, Jim celebrated his 63rd birthday.
"Having a birthday always makes you think about your mortality, and I'm kind of in overtime," says Jim.
"I hoped medical technology would offer me a cure one day, that all I needed was to live long enough."
Jim began dealing with classic symptoms of diabetes in high school—frequent urination, excessive thirst, and weight loss.
He followed his doctors' orders, which included two daily injections of insulin and testing his blood sugar levels. He adjusted what he ate and learned to be his own nutritionist.
"I hoped medical technology would offer me a cure one day, that all I needed was to live long enough," he says.
The ah-ha moment
Despite Jim's efforts, at 42, his heart briefly stopped and doctors performed an angioplasty to relieve an artery that was 95% blocked.
"That was my 'ah-ha' moment. Well, actually it was more of an 'oh-no' moment," he says.
Jim's doctor told him time was running out, and there was nothing they could do.
"That was a dismal thing to hear from a cardiologist—basically, 'We did the best we could and we're not sure how long it will last.'"
Jim chose a new cardiologist—someone who understood the complexity of his case and focused on improving the 4 risk factors that were compromising Jim's health: cholesterol, blood pressure, stress level, and blood sugar.
This kept him out of the operating room for 6 years, until his health took another downturn: He found himself in the hospital at age 49, confronted with congestive heart and kidney failure.
"I wondered how this man was still standing. He needed a new heart, a new kidney, and a new pancreas to cure his diabetes."
Not one, but three transplants
Jim's cardiologist suggested transplants to replace the organs damaged by his diabetes and referred Jim to Dr. Prediman Shah at Cedars-Sinai. Dr. Shah created a game plan for how to approach the 3 transplants.
"This was both scary and foreign to me," says Jim. "Never in my wildest imagination would I imagine that having a transplant would be my ticket to good health."
"I wondered how this man was still standing," says Dr. Shah, director of Cedars-Sinai's Oppenheimer Atherosclerosis Research Center. "He needed a new heart, a new kidney and a new pancreas to cure his diabetes."
"When I mentioned the possibility of a triple organ transplant, Jim looked at me like I was crazy," says Dr. Shah.
Jim agreed to the bold idea, and Dr. Shah immediately put him on the waiting list for all 3 organs.
On November 3, 2005, Jim went into surgery, and 20 hours later he had a new heart and kidney.
"When I mentioned the possibility of a triple organ transplant, Jim looked at me like I was crazy."
Diabetes, however, was still a part of Jim's daily life until October 2006, when he got a new pancreas.
"I couldn't remember having a functioning pancreas," says Jim, who for 35 years had to manually replicate what the organ was supposed to do by injecting himself with insulin.
"Of the 3 organs, this was the most liberating," he says.
Jim finally was free of dealing with an insulin pump, testing his blood sugar levels, and being overly conscious of his diet.
That Thanksgiving, for the first time in decades, Jim had a slice of pumpkin pie.
"If I ever had a reason to be thankful, this is it," Jim says of his new pancreas.
Life after transplants
Since his transplants, Jim has poured his energy into using his story to inspire others. He has produced a documentary called Source of Hope that raises awareness about organ donation and the family of his donor. He also shares his story as an inspirational speaker.
For Jim, his triple transplant was the start to a whole new life. Fourteen years ago, when his organs began failing, he didn't think he'd live to see 63.
"Never in my wildest imagination would I imagine that having a transplant would be my ticket to good health."
"That felt like the beginning of the end," says Jim, "but ultimately it put me on a path to getting my transplants at Cedars-Sinai."
From Dr. Shah to the transplant coordinator, Jim says he truly felt everyone was pulling for him.
"The key for me, and as for any Cedars-Sinai patient, is that they focused on the aftercare of a transplant patient—you're their patient for life, and that's a good methodology," he says.
Jim and Dr. Shah built such a bond that when Jim decided to write his autobiography, When Hope is Your Only Option, he asked Dr. Shah to write the foreword.
"Jim sent me a bunch of chapters and I read through them, and by the end I was in tears," says Dr. Shah.
"It's beautifully written and really touches on his personal journey through some trying times, and how the role of a good family, a good team of doctors, hospitals, courage, and the desire to get well helped him overcome it all."
Read more about Jim and the challenge of making transplanted hearts last a lifetime in Discoveries magazine, which covers medical research at Cedars-Sinai.
Jim is a grateful patient and supporter of the Campaign for Cedars-Sinai. Learn more about the Campaign.
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