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Donation Made the Difference for Kidney-Pancreas Transplant Patient

Rhonda Lusco’s journey to better health has been 27 years in the making. At 28 years old, the Birmingham native was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes during her second pregnancy. Now, at age 55, Lusco says she never realized that the complications from her diabetes would lead to another life-threatening diagnosis, challenging surgeries, and what she calls “a tragedy that led to something so beautiful.”

As a type 1 diabetes patient, Lusco faced a daily struggle to regulate her insulin. She used insulin shots, pumps, and injection pens for 20 years. By 2010, the disease had taken a damaging toll.

“It started with high blood pressure and poor circulation, but soon I was losing sight due to eye hemorrhages, experiencing declining renal function, and battling anemia,” Lusco says.

Her condition deteriorated rapidly, and her decline in kidney function caused extreme nausea, vomiting, and excess fluid retention: “It felt like I was drowning in my own skin,” Lusco says.

Frustration, Confusion

Lusco was seeing a hepatologist during this period, and because he couldn’t explain all of her symptoms, he sent her to UAB Medicine for genetic testing. That’s when Lusco found out she was a carrier for Lynch Syndrome, a disorder that increases a person’s risk for certain cancers. Lusco says she was so impressed by the care she received from UAB’s genetic counselors that she decided to move all of her care to UAB Medicine.

“I was confused and frustrated by the lack of answers around my condition, and I wasn’t sure I was getting the care I needed,” Lusco says. “It was this move that resulted in the first concrete answers about my condition.”

In June 2011, Suzanne Bergman, MD, a nephrologist at The Kirklin Clinic at UAB Hospital, told Lusco that she had stage 4 renal failure.

“I remember being terrified and unsure of how someone my age could possibly face such a serious diagnosis,” Lusco says.

By July 2011, Lusco’s kidney function was at 35% and dropping. She struggled to regulate her blood pressure and insulin levels.

“Thankfully, Dr. Bergman explained to me where we needed to start at and provided a plan to slow the deterioration of my health. She monitored me very closely in conjunction with my CRNP Jane Davis and Dr. Dana Rizk, MD, at the Chronic Kidney Disease Clinic. Together, they helped me navigate the confusing changes in my health and worked to prevent the worsening of my kidney function,” Lusco says.

‘I Was Ready to Give Up’

The treatment plan worked for about six months, but by January 2012 her kidney function dropped to 15%, and in April 2012 it fell to 0%.

“My worst nightmare became a reality. I was diagnosed with stage 5 end stage renal failure,” Lusco says. “I remember breaking down and crying as Dr. Bergman prepared me for dialysis. I was ready to give up. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was it for my journey.”

Lusco was placed on emergency dialysis. She was told that the only way off dialysis was a kidney and pancreas transplant.

“I was full of the fear of the unknown. I knew so little about organ transplants and was frightened to think that there were already thousands of other people on the waiting list for a kidney,” Lusco says. “It was easy to feel like the light at end of the tunnel was getting dimmer, but I was lucky to have support from my UAB care team, family, friends, and faith.”

In March 2012, Lusco was placed on the kidney and pancreas transplant waiting list. She received regular dialysis, but her condition continued to worsen.

“The transplant process was an emotional rollercoaster, but thankfully I was being guided by very positive doctors and nurses,” Lusco says.

Seven months later, Lusco’s prayers were answered – a donor match had been found.

“I cried tears of joy. I look back at those moments now, and I am so grateful to all the people who helped me during this journey. I have a newfound respect for the doctors and nurses that change people’s lives daily through these procedures,” Lusco says.

Second Chance at Life

Lusco’s kidney and pancreas transplant was a success. She must take anti-rejection medication daily and has had both an infection and a high-risk surgery since her transplant, but Lusco says the transplant greatly improved her quality of life.

“Most of all I’m grateful that post-transplant, I no longer need insulin. It was so weird to stop the insulin after 21 years of my life revolving around when to take my shots. Now I can eat a normal diet, and my body’s nerve damage has improved. I even lost over 55 pounds of fluid due to a working kidney,” Lusco says. “The most amazing part has been being able to spend time with my family again and being there for my three kids.”

Lusco says UAB Medicine’s care team is always willing to go above and beyond for her, no matter the circumstances.

“When the snow storm hit Birmingham in January 2014, I was stranded in midtown. Fortunately, I was near UAB, and I walked to the hospital to stay overnight. My nursing coordinator Darla Mims once again saved the day by helping me coordinate care during this unexpected situation. UAB Specialty Pharmacy Services filled a few extra days of medicine for me until I could return home. This is just one example of exceptional care I’ve received from UAB Medicine,” Lusco says.

“The best part of the entire process was my care team: Dr. Michael Hanaway, Dr. Carlton Young, Dr. Clifton Kew, Dr. Bruce Julian, Dr. Graham Towns, and my two nursing coordinators: Pam Franklin Cooley and Darla Mims,” Lusco says. “No amount of words can be said to express the gratitude I feel to everyone who helped me during this medical journey. My family and I were so impressed by the care we received, and each person made me feel like we were a part of their family. Thank you for saving my life and providing me this second chance to live again.”

Lusco says this experience even inspired her youngest daughter to become a nurse so she “could show the same care we received to other families.”

An Appeal to Potential Donors

Lusco says she knows she wouldn’t be here today if not for her donor, Tyler.

“He was from Theodore, Alabama. His brave choice to be an organ donor allowed me a second chance at life. He changed my life, and while I never met him, I feel like I know him so well at the same time. I will never understand why such a tragedy led to something so beautiful for me,” Lusco says.

Lusco says she hopes others will consider making the same choice to give life.

“You never know whose life you can save, and it might be one of your loved ones who needs this second chance,” Lusco says.

“In this case, Tyler touched so many people in his short life and saved so many other lives in his last moments. This is the truest form of love, and I will always carry a piece of Tyler with me.”