September 20, 2023

Transplant patient marks 35th anniversary of new life

Richard Matecki and several members of the UW Health Transplant Center team
In August. Richard Matecki rang the survivor's bell at the UW Health Transplant Center 35 times.

"I was almost dead, and then I was alive again."

MADISON, Wis. – Richard Matecki says he has lived two lives, one life before his simultaneous pancreas-kidney transplant and one life afterward.

Matecki celebrated the 35th anniversary of his simultaneous pancreas-kidney in July; he is one of the longest-living recipients of this type of transplant in the history of the UW Health Transplant Center.

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child in the 1950s, Matecki learned early in life how to boil the glass syringes and steel needles needed to inject himself with insulin.

“I’d go to the doctor for a blood draw to test my blood sugar levels but wouldn’t have results until days later,” he said. “There was not much they could do for people with diabetes in those days.”

While living with diabetes was a challenge, Matecki was determined to not let his illness interfere with his ambitions. He graduated from college with a degree in physics, began working as a computer programmer for the department store Marshall Field’s and started a family. Matecki moved with his family from Illinois to the Milwaukee area in the early 1980s for a new job. Shortly after the move, his kidney function deteriorated.

“I was so sick, I could barely walk the two blocks to my job,” he said. “I’d have to turn my chair around so no one could see me taking a nap once I made it to the office.”

With limited treatment options, his doctors in Milwaukee suggested Matecki travel to University Hospital in Madison to meet the surgeons who were performing simultaneous pancreas-kidney transplants. He discussed the surgery with the late Dr. Hans Sollinger, who pioneered the procedure at UW Health. Matecki also spent time with a patient who had recently received a new pancreas and kidney.

“This patient was skinny like me, and he was in a wheelchair, but he said after his surgery, he never felt better in his life,” Matecki said. “I knew that’s what I wanted to feel like.”

With that conversation fresh in his mind, Matecki made the decision to be evaluated for the transplant. Following a medical history, physical exam and compatibility tests, the transplant team determined he was a good candidate for the surgery. Matecki estimates he waited for less than a year on the transplant list before he got the call saying there was a donor match for him. Sollinger performed the surgery on July 25, 1988.

“For the longest time, I divided my life into pre- and post-transplant. I thought I was almost dead, and then I was alive again,” Matecki said.

Sollinger’s innovations in simultaneous pancreas-kidney transplants have allowed thousands of patients, including Matecki, to live healthier, more fulfilled lives, said Dr. Jon Odorico, surgical director of the UW Health Pancreas and Islet Cell Transplantation programs.

“It has been a remarkable journey for Mr. Matecki and I am so impressed with how he has endured throughout these 35 years,” said Odorico, who is also a professor of surgery at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. “To achieve long-term post-transplant success, it is vital that we provide the latest surgical techniques as well as excellent education for our patients, so they know what to expect, and what to do to protect their new organs.”

Matecki has been a very engaged patient and successful in managing his post-transplant care routine, he said.

No longer reliant on daily doses of insulin, Matecki said after surgery, he quickly became active again, enjoying outings with his daughter and tasting foods that had once been off-limits.

“My blood sugar became normal almost immediately,” he said. “I remember someone brought me a giant cookie one day after my surgery and it was the best cookie I’ve ever eaten.”

In the decades following his transplant, Matecki resumed work and also traveled for the first time, taking trips to Canada, Mexico and the Dominican Republic. For 20 years, he volunteered at a local animal shelter as a dog walker and foster parent. Matecki also set aside time each week to volunteer on a telephone hotline for people with mental illness.

“I felt that since I had a new life, I should put a little good into the world,” he said.

Matecki has faced health challenges since his transplant: He was treated for skin cancer and several heart surgeries, including one to insert a pacemaker. He stopped driving due to vision problems, which are common for people with diabetes. In 2017, Matecki moved to the Chicago suburbs to be closer to family who help him make the trip each year for follow-up appointments at the UW Health Transplant Clinic.

His daughter drove him to his annual visit in August and joined him as he rang the survivor’s bell 35 times, a cadence not often repeated.

“His long-term success thrills us and drives us to do even better for even more patients,” Odorico said. “We’re motivated every day to apply state-of-the-art improvements for the benefit of patients, so they can achieve their lifelong dreams.”

Those dreams now include watching his brother’s band play gigs as well as his own weekly music lessons — the now 73-year-old picked up the cello in recent years, rekindling a love for music started as a teen when he played French horn alongside his father in local orchestras.

“Life is good,” Matecki said. “I have my health, I have my family, I have my little dog and I’m grateful to my donor to have allowed me all these years to enjoy them all.”