Pancreas transplant

Pancreas pals

Created graphic with headshots of four women.

Here’s the story…of a lady named Jen…who was fighting with a very rough disease…

Jen Johnson had Type 1 diabetes and experienced hypoglycemia unawareness, a condition in which she didn’t experience symptoms of low blood sugar until she was in a dangerous situation. After many years of suffering, Jen heard from a staff member at her local hospital about the Pancreas Transplant Program at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin. She qualified for the transplant wait list in November 2017, and started joining pancreas transplant groups on Facebook to learn more about the process.

Here's the story…of a lady named Stephanie…who was waiting for a transplant of her own…

Meanwhile, Stephanie Turnipseed also needed relief from her Type 1 diabetes and her constantly fluctuating blood sugar levels. “I had one bad episode where I passed out because my blood sugar dipped too low,” she said. “It seemed like I just had less and less control. I was one of those people who tested their blood sugar constantly.”

Stephanie’s childhood friend had undergone a pancreas transplant and connected her with UW Health’s program, so she was also in the process of being listed for a transplant in Madison.

Till the one day when the ladies met each other…

The two connected through a Facebook pancreas transplant group and immediately hit it off. On March 10, 2018, Jen received her gift of life, and because she was making her journey public, Stephanie followed it closely. She knew that someday soon; she would be following the same journey.

It wasn’t an easy one for Jen, though. For the first few months after her transplant, she was in and out of the hospital with infections and a rejection episode. “Every time I would go into the hospital, I would take a picture of an empty room and send it to her,” Jen said. She wanted Stephanie to see that there was room for her when she received her own gift of life.

Stephanie received her own pancreas transplant on April 26—just a month and a half after Jen. In the meantime, Jen had met another pancreas recipient, Liz Leuenberger, at Restoring Hope Transplant House in Middleton, Wisconsin—a place where transplant patients can recover. Liz was staying there while her husband recovered from a heart and liver transplant.

And they knew that it was much more than a hunch…

Liz had received her pancreas transplant on March 8 after experiencing many complications of Type 1 diabetes, including neuropathy in her feet, difficulty with digestion and eye problems. She and Jen immediately related to each other.

“We met sitting around the dining room table just sharing our stories,” Liz said. “Since my transplant was a few days before hers, I could share some of my experiences. We could talk about recovery and how awesome it was not to be diabetic anymore.”

When Liz came to visit Jen during one of her hospital stays, Jen introduced her to Stephanie, who was still in recovery. And then, the trio became a quartet…

That this group would somehow form a family…that’s the way they all became the Panc Pals!

Danelle Coldicott was also in the hospital at the same time as Jen and Stephanie. She, too, was recovering from a pancreas transplant on April 12 (she had learned about UW Health from a family member who had a pancreas/kidney transplant at the hospital), and she, too, was grateful she would no longer have to battle scary blood sugar fluctuations. At one point, her blood sugar was so unstable that she weighed only 70 pounds.

After leaving the hospital, Danelle stayed at Restoring Hope Transplant House, which was where she met Liz. The two became fast friends, exploring Madison together while they both recovered.

Once all the introductions were made, the four women created a group text through which they sent health updates, talked about hopes and fears and, occasionally, exchanging pictures of their pets doing silly things. “It was so nice to be able to bounce questions off of somebody else,” said Jen.

Because of their shared experience receiving pancreas transplants at UW Health, the women now have many other acquaintances and friends in common, too. One of their favorites is Nancy Radke, RN, MSN, a transplant coordinator who works with pancreas patients. Nancy has become a kind of Yoda to them, providing a wise, comforting presence.

“We try so hard to give each other answers, but we always end up by saying, ‘You better call Nancy,’” said Danelle.

The last time all four of them were together was in 2019, when they donned tutus and participated in the National Kidney Foundation’s Capital City Run/Walk. They’re hoping to schedule another group get-together in 2024[SKA(1] .

In the meantime, they sometimes meet up individually (Liz and Danelle try to schedule their annual follow-ups at the same time) and still text each other nearly every day. All four of them are incredibly grateful for the gift of life they received, and that they don’t have diabetes anymore.

“Every day that I don’t have diabetes is wonderful,” said Stephanie.