PEORIA — When Matt Polk was put on the kidney transplant list in 2016, he had no idea his diabetes would be cured in the process.
Matt was one of three patients who underwent a kidney/pancreas transplant at OSF HealthCare Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria in 2017. Because the pancreas is where insulin is produced, Matt hasn’t required a single insulin injection since the surgery.
“To see him post-surgery not having that insulin pump, to know his body was working perfectly, it was truly a miracle,” said Barbara Polk, Matt’s wife, while sitting with her husband in the family’s Morton home Monday.
It’s been a big change for Matt, 49, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at the age of 3. He always managed the disease the best he could, but the tools weren’t as good when he was younger, and the damage diabetes causes is cumulative.
Matt’s doctors had been watching his kidney function for a long time before he began seeing a nephrologist in 2015, and in 2016 Matt was put on the transplant list.
“I went on the list just for a kidney,” said Matt. “Part of the protocol is, they tell you to ask people you know if they are willing to donate a kidney.”
Matt’s sister was a match, but shortly before the transplant was to take place, his doctor suggested a change of course.
“He said, ‘Your name keeps coming up on the transplant list — you could get both a kidney and a pancreas,’” recalled Matt. “‘The advantage is, you wouldn’t have the diabetes working against the kidney.’”
Although Matt’s doctors were offering him a cure for diabetes, it was a difficult decision.
The first thing he thought of was kids. Type 1 diabetes is a family legacy, and two of his five children have it. How would they feel if he were cured? The idea made Matt feel guilty. Plus, he was used to managing the disease. Diagnosed so young, it was a way of life he was accustomed to. The other consideration was the fact that adding the pancreas to the transplant operation made recovery more difficult.
As Matt and his wife, Barbara, mulled over the pros and cons, once again their thoughts landed on their children.
“What it ultimately came down to was, 'What course of action is going to have him here for the longest?'” said Barbara. Matt’s biggest fear was not being there for the kids.
The day Matt got the call, he visited his children before going to the hospital.
“I went to their schools and spoke with each one. I told them I was going in for the transplant and everything was going to be fine,” he said.
Surgery began around 10 p.m. Jan. 18 and didn’t finish until about 8:30 a.m. Jan. 19. For the first few days, recovery was rough. After 10 days in the hospital, Matt went home, where he was essentially quarantined in the basement for about three months.
“For the first several months, my immunity was way down,” said Matt.
Each day after school, the kids would change clothes and wash their hands before visiting their dad. Anyone who had a cough didn’t visit.
“After three months I was able to go to my daughter’s junior high volleyball game, but I sat across the gym from everybody so I wouldn’t catch anyone’s germs,” Matt said.
Today, nearly a year and a half after surgery, Matt is doing well.
“It’s been a life-changing surgery,” he said. “It’s been nothing but a gift, but there were some hard days.”
He has more energy than he’s had in a very long time. Though it took awhile to get used to not having to manage his insulin levels, Matt’s glad he got the pancreas. During his recovery, he had a talk with his 6-year-old son Jarrett, who has diabetes, to explain why Dad didn’t use an insulin pump anymore.
“I hadn’t told him that I didn’t have diabetes anymore,” said Matt. “He was so young and I wasn’t sure he would understand. I didn’t want to give him false hope, because he can’t get a pancreas. I explained to him that he had to have a failing kidney, and our prayer is that he never gets to that point. After I explained it to him, he said, ‘I’m glad you don’t have diabetes anymore.’”
Being able to have the surgery so close to home was huge for the family.
“We would have had to live up in Chicago for four to four and a half months,” said Barbara. “We are so lucky to have such an amazing hospital in our backyard.”
OSF has been doing organ transplants since 1985, and today averages about 44 a year. The first kidney/pancreas transplant was performed at OSF in 2002 by Dr. Beverley Ketel.
“We are the only program in downstate Illinois that offers kidney/pancreas transplant,” said Dr. Manish Gupta, one of Matt’s transplant surgeons. “Otherwise they have to go to Chicago or Mayo, St. Louis or Indiana. It is good for patients to have that expertise in their own local area in case there are pitfalls later. And they get better continuity of care.”
The Polks are grateful for the care they’ve received from OSF. They never miss an opportunity to give back, and readily agreed to speak to the media for Organ Transplant Month in April.
While the Polks don’t know who the donor was, Matt wrote a letter to the family when he was first given the chance. He’s not heard back from them, but hopes to in the future.
“We’re forever indebted to this family who donated organs in a time of sorrow and pain,” said Barbara. “There’s not a day that goes by when we don’t pray for them or think of them.”
Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.