Pancreas transplant

Melissa's life was changed by a pancreas transplant

Portrait of Melissa Nelson, smiling.
Melissa Nelson

When Melissa Nelson first began experiencing the signs of diabetes (frequent urination, thirst and weight loss) at age 23, she told herself it couldn’t possibly be diabetes. She figured she was too old for a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, and too small for Type 2.

Melissa was working as a technician in a hospital emergency department, and one day, an ER doctor smelled ketones on her breath. Ketones are chemicals the body creates when it breaks down fat to use for energy and are a warning sign that a person’s diabetes is out of control. Some people say that “ketone breath” spells fruity, or like nail polish remover. After the doctor smelled her breath, he admitted her right away. Sure enough, she received a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis and started insulin injections.

Over the next 10 years, Melissa worked hard to regulate her blood sugar. She participated in 5K races and even was able to become pregnant and give birth to a son. But it was difficult—especially since she suffered from a condition called hypoglycemia unawareness, a complication of diabetes in which the patient is unaware of a deep drop in blood sugar. She averaged one or two intensive care unit stays each year, and nearly lost consciousness one day at work while she was performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Though Melissa works in health care, she never knew it was possible to undergo a pancreas-only transplant; she thought pancreas transplants only happened in conjunction with kidney transplants. Then, she met someone in her hometown of Davenport, Iowa, whose son received a pancreas transplant at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin.

Melissa connected with the caregivers at the UW Health Pancreas Transplant Program, and by April 2019, she was on the wait list for a new pancreas. She was only on the list for 36 hours before she received a call that a pancreas had become available. She drove from Iowa to Wisconsin and received her gift of life on April 25, 2019.

After the transplant Melissa developed several complications, including blood clots in the donor artery that almost caused her to lose her new pancreas. But she fought through with the help of the UW Health team. “I was in the best care,” she says. “My transplant surgeon, Dr. Odorico, was phenomenal, my transplant coordinator, Nancy, was amazing, and the team that cared for me on the hospital floor was wonderful.”

She remembers one instance when she and her husband, Jake, received bad news while they were in the hospital. One of her nurses sat with her, hugged her and cried right along with her.

While the complications were difficult, Melissa is thrilled she received her transplant. Now, she can play with her 7-year-old son without worrying about her blood sugar level. “It was 100% worth it,” she says. “I consider this a gift, and the pain I went through isn’t comparable with the pain the donor’s family went through.”

Since her transplant, Melissa has run in a couple of races, and she will compete in the 2022 Donate Life Transplant Games in San Diego, California. She has also become an active volunteer with the Iowa Donor Network. “It’s a ripple effect,” she says. “You never really know how the person you are talking to may be affected by organ donation.”