Pancreas transplant

Merry's long road from diabetes patient to transplant recipient

Smiling woman

One night, when Merry Zingg’s husband was out of town, she was so concerned her blood sugar would drop dangerously low overnight that she called the 911 dispatcher.

She asked the woman to call her at midnight, and to send an ambulance if she didn’t answer. Merry was afraid to sleep alone because she suffered from hypoglycemia unawareness, a complication of diabetes in which the patient is unaware of a deep drop in blood sugar.

For more than five decades, Merry, who lives in Phlox, Wis., struggled to control her diabetes. Then, she learned she qualified for a pancreas transplant at the UW Health Pancreas Transplant Program in Madison.

It was a long road from diabetes patient to transplant recipient, but now she’s healthy, happy and thrilled she doesn’t have to give herself shots anymore.

Merry first received her diabetes diagnosis at age 4 and spent her 5th birthday (which was also Christmas Day) in the hospital. As she grew older, she didn’t play sports because exercising caused her blood sugar to drop, and sleepovers at friends’ houses were extra stressful for her parents. After she got married, her husband David frequently had to take her to the emergency room, and her mother often would stay with her when David was traveling.

It’s such a great feeling to be able to eat and exercise and not have to wonder whether I will end up in the emergency room.

As she was receiving treatment for various health conditions in 2019, Merry’s endocrinologist first suggested the possibility of a pancreas transplant.

Merry traveled to University Hospital in Madison for testing later that year, but learned she had to undergo several immunizations and procedures — including a heart catheterization, a colonoscopy and a chest X-ray — before qualifying to go on the wait list for a new pancreas.

On June 26, 2020, Merry received the gift of life. Since then, she has communicated with her donor’s family and learned she was a 33-year-old mother who helped a total of five different people.

“I am beyond grateful to my donor,” Merry said. “It’s such a great feeling to be able to eat and exercise and not have to wonder whether I will end up in the emergency room.”

As a transplant recipient, Merry is at increased risk for complications from the coronavirus (COVID-19), so she’s staying home these days. But she’s OK with that, because she feels so much freer than she has for her entire life.

"I love to walk and ride my bike now," she said. "That’s my big thing — just because I can. I can do anything I want to do now."