Covington man celebrates one-year anniversary of pancreas transplant

Staff Photo: Karen J. Rohr. Jacob Gilbert of Covington, right, received a pancreas transplant a year ago to cure his diabetes. Here he shares a warm moment with his wife Waver and 3-year-old daughter Alyssa.

Staff Photo: Karen J. Rohr. Jacob Gilbert of Covington, right, received a pancreas transplant a year ago to cure his diabetes. Here he shares a warm moment with his wife Waver and 3-year-old daughter Alyssa.

COVINGTON -- A year ago, Jacob Gilbert's diabetes spiraled out of control. One day he drove to a convenience store for a Coke and candy bar. When he came out of the store, he couldn't find his car.

Gilbert walked down the street and a friend stopped to see if he was OK. Gilbert didn't recognize his friend. Before long, Gilbert lost consciousness.

"I worried about him every day he walked out the door," said his wife Waver Gilbert.

A lot has changed for Gilbert since last summer. He now has a new pancreas, the organ responsible for producing insulin, and his diabetes is cured.

The 34-year-old underwent the pancreas transplant at Piedmont Hospital in June 2010, and while the side effects have often challenged his health, he would rather live one day with the new organ rather than a lifetime with diabetes, said his wife.

"I have more energy. I feel like what I feel like a normal person is like," Gilbert said.

Doctors diagnosed Gilbert with type 1 diabetes when he was only 5 years old. Unlike type 2 diabetes, which can be controlled by diet and exercise, type 1 diabetes requires patients to take insulin. Only five percent of people with diabetes have type 1, according to the American Diabetes Association website.

As a child, Gilbert learned to give himself shots of insulin. At school, he left class to eat snacks and check his blood sugar levels, and tried not to discuss his condition.

"I didn't like the fact that it drew attention to me. I didn't want to talk about it. I didn't like people asking me about it," Gilbert said.

As Gilbert became an adult, his diabetes worsened. He lost consciousness frequently, experienced seizures and constantly felt sluggish. He suffered damage to his kidneys and eyes, undergoing 11 eye laser surgeries.

Amidst his struggle with diabetes, Gilbert married Waver in 2007 and became a father to Alyssa, who turns 3 on July 1.

"She is our miracle baby," Waver Gilbert said.

In July 2009, doctors evaluated Gilbert and concluded that he would be an appropriate candidate for a pancreas transplant.

Pancreas transplants are rare and risky, according to the American Diabetes Association. Drugs taken by the patient to suppress the immune system after the transplant, which allow the body to accept the organ, can cause severe complications. One to two people out of 10 die within a year after getting the transplant, and half of all pancreas transplants are rejected.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Organ Procurement and Transplant Network website, doctors performed 350 pancreas transplants nationwide last year, with only four of those in Georgia.

After almost a year on the transplant waiting list, on the morning of June 18, 2010, Piedmont Hospital doctors called Gilbert to let him know that a pancreas was available. He kissed his daughter goodbye, knowing that he couldn't see her for six weeks because his immune system would be too weak, and he headed off to Piedmont with his wife.

By that evening, Gilbert had a new pancreas. A procedure that could have taken 12 hours only took about four.

"Everything went like clockwork. It was perfect," said his wife.

Complications did set in. Gilbert needed 11 blood transfusions and he spent four months in and out of the hospital. He's also had pneumonia several times.

Today his health appears to be stable. He's reduced his anti-rejection medications from 50 a day to 20. At a recent one-year follow-up appointment, "the numbers look great," said Waver Gilbert. The Covington resident is also back at his job as a manager for Sunbelt Rentals in Conyers.

"It's like a brand new life for him," she said.

Doctors predict the pancreas could last between five to 10 years, and Gilbert could require more transplants in the future.

But for now, Gilbert is appreciating his newfound energy and he's thankful "every minute of every day," he said.

"I don't take it for granted," Gilbert said.