‘Organ donation saved my life’
Kidney, pancreas recipient Michelle Thomas shares her story
In 2003, the non-profit Donate Life America and its partners designated April as National Donate Life Month in an effort to encourage Americans to register as organ, eye and tissue donors.
Various local, regional and national activities are held throughout the month to promote the gift of donation and also celebrate those lives saved through organ and tissue donation.
In an effort to further advocate organ and tissue donors, we bring you a three-part series focusing on Michelle Thomas, a former type-1 diabetic who was the recipient of a kidney in 2004 and a pancreas three years later. Michelle is a DeKalb resident and the mother of LifeSource marketing lead Kathleen Meyer, whom you will meet in the second part of the series. The series concludes with the story of Elsa Fischer, who agreed to donate one of her kidneys to Michelle.
April is Donate Life Month. Click HERE for information on how you can make an impact through blood or organ donation.
The Recipient — Michelle Bejbl Thomas
Michelle Bejbl Thomas was not exactly eager to start the seventh grade.
The DeKalb-native had just moved across town and would be leaving behind her friends at Huntley Middle School for the unfamiliarity of Clinton Rosette Middle School.
“I was in a new neighborhood and didn’t really know anyone and one day I’m outside and out of nowhere pops this girl named Elsa and we became immediate friends,” Michelle said. “We’ve been great friends ever since.”
Little did Michelle know that chance encounter with Elsa Fischer would end up saving her life.
Three years later when Michelle was 15 years old she began experiencing cases of extreme thirst, fatigue and rapid weight loss. “No matter how much water I drank, I was always thirsty,” Michelle said. “I had the classic symptoms of diabetes.”
A trip to the doctor and a blood test confirmed Michelle’s self-diagnosis.
“A normal person has a blood sugar level between 80 and 120, mine was at 650,” she said.
Michelle was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, a disease in which a person’s immune system mistakenly sees insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas as foreign and attacks and destroys them.
Taking the diagnosis about as well as anyone could expect, Michelle said she vowed to follow her doctor’s instructions.
“I was like ‘OK, I have this and I know what I have to do,’” she said. “I studied up [on diabetes] in health class and took my insulin shots and followed the diet, but I found out there’s a lot more to it than that. This was 1977, and while a lot of the treatment equipment like disposable syringes and recombinant DNA insulin had made it easier for a type 1 diabetic, the physiological and psychological aspects of the disease were not well acknowledged. It was hard for me to stay on track sometimes.”
Type 1 diabetes did little to slow Michelle down while she was a student. She continued to play sports and participate in cheerleading. She would go on to graduate DeKalb High School and then Knox College in Galesburg.
She does recall a “very scary” incident while she was pregnant with her only child, Kathleen, in 1987. Michelle was diagnosed with pre-eclampsia, a pregnancy complication characterized by very high blood pressure, about six months into the pregnancy and had to be on bed rest for around eight weeks.
Michelle ended up giving birth to a healthy baby, but fast forward to around 2000 and years of high blood pressure and diabetes had essentially “destroyed” her kidneys. “By the time I was 38 I was always extremely tired and could barely walk,” she said. “I could just feel my body being polluted and it literally left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Doctors ordered Michelle to go on peritoneal dialysis, a form of dialysis done at home during the night.
“It was always somewhat uncomfortable but it allowed my remaining kidney function to be preserved so that I could lead a somewhat normal life,” she said.
She was also told a kidney transplant would be the only way for her to regain the mobility and health she had prior to being diagnosed with diabetes.
There was only one problem. A compatible donor could not be found.
“Both of my parents and my friend Don were tested and neither one was a match, and I wasn’t going to ask my teenage daughter to get tested,” she said.
Michelle said Elsa “had enough” of her good friend being unable to find a donor, and, along with her partner Paige, agreed to get tested. The results came back that both Elsa and Paige were compatible, with the former being a slightly better match.
“I told Elsa she didn’t need to do this and even called her mom and told her she can’t let her daughter do this,” Michelle said. “Elsa just told me her entire family was behind it. Once I heard the family gave their blessing, I felt better but I still told Elsa she didn’t have to go through with it right up until she was taken into the OR.”
After a few months of testing for Elsa, Michelle had her kidney transplant at the University of Chicago Medical Center in December 2004. In addition to donating a kidney, Elsa also gave a pint of blood for Michelle which doctors used during the procedure. A blood donation from Elsa was important, doctors said, because it was less likely to be rejected during Michelle’s surgery.“It was an absolute success,” Michelle said of the kidney transplant. “My family told me they had never seen me look better. Elsa was able to walk into my room in the ICU that evening.”
A few years later doctors told Michelle it was time to replace her pancreas, which she said had been “dead” since she was diagnosed with diabetes in 1977.
On two separate occasions in December of 2007 doctors called Michelle and instructed her to come into the hospital because they believed a match had been found only to decide against the transplant at the last minute. Then right around Christmas of 2007 Michelle once again got a call from doctors telling her a match had been located. This time the procedure was a go and Michelle had her new pancreas, and doctors soon after told her she no longer had type 1 diabetes.
“I felt like a completely new person,” she said. “When I turned 50 it didn’t feel like I was turning 50. It felt like I was 30.”
Life is now pretty good for Michelle. Since 2010 she has owned Gone to the Dogs, a DeKalb-based dog daycare, grooming and training facility. Last spring she was also able to see her daughter get married.
“Organ donation saved my life,” the 55-year-old said. “There are too many misconceptions about organ donation that prevent people from agreeing to be a donor, but I’m all for it. It was a wonderful gift.”
This was the first in a three-part series related to kidney and pancreas transplant recipient Michelle Bejbl Thomas. Read part two of this story, about Michelle’s daughter, Kathleen Meyer, here. Read part three of this story, about Michelle’s donor, Elsa Fischer, here.