Ten years earlier, her Type 1 diabetes had already cost her the vision in one eye.
In 1997 what was left of then-34-year-old Lisa Marie Raco’s life didn’t look promising. She feared losing vision in her other eye, and the 20 years of living with the disease that had sapped her kidney function had just transitioned into full-blown kidney failure, forcing her into four hours of dialysis three times a week.
“I saw her health decline, dialysis really tired her out,” Raco’s next-door neighbor in Henderson, Denise Korach, said recently.
Still, Raco, a registered nurse who gave herself five insulin shots a day to control her blood sugar, continued to work part time for St. Rose Dominican Hospitals, praying her overall health wouldn’t deteriorate to the point where she couldn’t have a kidney transplant.
She’d been on the kidney transplant list at University Medical Center for a couple of years and had resigned herself to the fact that even if she was fortunate enough to get an organ that would take her off dialysis, it wouldn’t do anything for the diabetes weakening her body.
But then Dr. Jose Zamora took over UMC’s transplant program. He explained to Raco that adults whose kidneys have failed because of Type 1 diabetes are candidates for simultaneous kidney-pancreas transplants.
In Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas does not make enough insulin, a hormone that regulates the body’s blood sugar level. The transplanted pancreas can produce insulin and correct this type of diabetes.
“I was so excited about having both my problems corrected,” Raco said the other day. “I was all for it.”
Sixteen years ago, just as she was about to take her 5-year-old daughter Kayla and Denise Korach’s 5-year-old daughter Emily on a play date, Raco’s pager went off. Both organs were available.
On Sept. 9, 1997, Zamora tied in the new organs. Today, Raco’s a healthy 50-year-old — she has no trace of diabetes — who still works as both a home health nurse and piano teacher. She’s also an active volunteer for the Nevada Donor Network, the organization responsible for donated organs and tissues for transplantation.
With nearly 117,000 people on waiting lists for organs — 6,000 Americans die waiting each year — Raco argues that the United States should follow the lead of Europeans and adopt presumed consent legislation, where a deceased individual is classified as a possible donor unless he or she explicitly objects prior to death. In America, individuals have to opt into organ donation.
Organ donation rates are 30 percent higher in presumed consent countries.
Raco says TV and movie dramas showing doctors and nurses conspiring to let someone die to procure organs for a transplant that will give them a financial windfall (think Robin Cook’s “Coma”) are much to blame for the fact that only 35 percent of Americans register to be an organ donor.
“Those shows are so divorced from reality,” Raco said. “I’ve been around doctors and nurses my whole life and it’s just not true. People have to think about how they’d feel if they or their loved ones couldn’t get an organ. We don’t want to waste opportunities for life.”
Dominic Intravaia, Raco’s father, can’t believe more people don’t become donors.
“What can happen is a miracle,” he said. “Lisa’s normal now.”
All Raco has been told is that the organs she received came from an 18-year-old girl who died in an auto accident. Because of privacy regulations — some grieving families can’t bear to talk about a loved one’s death — she was never given the family’s name.
“I’ve written thank-you letters through the donor network but haven’t heard back,” she said. “I’d love to meet them.”
Zamora, now a transplant surgeon in San Diego, is excited about Raco’s progress.
“At 16 years, she’s doing the best of my patients from that procedure,” he said.
Though 10 years is the national average for life after the double transplant, some people have lived more than 20 years.
Twice a day Raco takes five anti-rejection pills.
“I’ve never had a rejection episode,” she said. “I’m blessed.”
As happy as she is with her double transplant, Raco’s sad that budget and quality control problems at UMC have mandated that only kidney transplants be offered there since 2003.
“There are many people who could benefit from what I have had done,” she said.
Dr. John Ham, the surgeon who recently turned a troubled kidney transplant program at UMC into one of the nation’s best, said in four months UMC will offer the kidney-pancreas transplant again.
“That’s good,” Raco said. “We need to be helping more people, not less.”
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.