By Michaela Gibson Morris
TUPELO – Rachel Cobb is six weeks into a new life without diabetes or dialysis.
The 30-year-old Tupelo woman went through a kidney-pancreas transplant Feb. 25 at University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson.
“This is such a gift,” said Cobb, who lived with Type I diabetes for 22 years and endured a year and a half of dialysis while she waited for a transplant.
Cobb was the second person and the first woman to go through the kidney-pancreas transplant in Mississippi at UMMC. Implementing kidney-pancreas transplants was the final goal of the initial plan re-establishing the medical center’s abdominal transplant program.
“We’re really happy to be offering this surgery in Mississippi so patients don’t have to travel out of state,” said Dr. Mark Earl, Cobb’s transplant surgeon.
The kidney-pancreas transplant carries increased risk, Earl said. The pancreas is a finicky organ and relatively few are available for transplant – 10 to 12 a year in Mississippi. However, adding the pancreas to the kidney transplant for people with Type I diabetes and end stage renal disease greatly improves the odds for the transplanted kidney.
“It has a dramatic impact on their quality of life,” Earl said. “They’ve been sick so long … it’s like a new world opens up.”
Fighting for life
For Cobb, diabetes has been a fight, especially in her teens and early 20s. She remembers passing out at Pontotoc High School and in the Walmart parking lot. She was hospitalized for infections and diabetic coma. Diabetic retinopathy threatened to take her eyesight, leading to a series of surgeries.
“There’s so many times that I’ve almost died,” Cobb said.
The fight for her kidneys began in 2010 when she was pregnant with her son Jackson. It prompted her to get deeply serious about managing her diabetes. With the help of Tupelo nephrologist Dr. Ken Kellum, she was able to hold the line on her kidney function through her pregnancy.
“Every time we saw her, her kidney function got a little worse,” Kellum said. “Unfortunately there’s no medicine to reverse the damage.”
Cobb was able to delay going on dialysis until her son was a toddler. For a year and a half, she went through the four-and-a-half hour sessions three to four times a week.
“I took lemons and made lemonade,” Cobb said. “I met a lot of wonderful people through dialysis. If it wasn’t for the techs and nurses at dialysis, I wouldn’t have been able to get to transplant.”
During the hours of dialysis – four and a half-hour sessions, three or four days a week, Cobb took college courses online. Her goal is to become a nurse working with people with diabetes.
“This disease has been such a burden in my life, but I can learn from the negative things and inspire others,” Cobb said.
Her family – especially fiancé Thomas Clark, her mother Regina Monts and grandfather Harold Hill – has wrapped around her during the journey. Her church family has been an incredible source of prayer and support.
This past Sunday marked six weeks since the surgery, a significant milestone on the road to full recovery. She’s had a few hiccups as the UMMC team fine tuned her medications, but “there’s no sign of rejection,” said Cobb, who sings the praises of her transplant team.
Although she no longer has to take insulin shots or spend hours on dialysis each week, she still has to carefully monitor her blood sugar to track the function of her new pancreas, and watch her blood pressure to make sure her new kidney is protected.
These days, she takes 28 pills each day including immune-suppressing medications to prevent rejection, antifungals and antibiotics to protect against infections as well as blood pressure medications to protect her kidneys.
“It’s definitely a different routine,” Cobb said.
Cobb said she feels an incredible debt to the family of her organ donor who made the generous decision in the face of their personal tragedy. She hopes to meet them someday.
“My heart goes out to that family,” Cobb said. “I want to be a part of remembering that person.”