Diabetic patients get dual organ transplant service at Royal Adelaide Hospital

After four years of desperately waiting for kidney and pancreas transplants, Adelaide mother Sally Stavrinakis was at risk of being taken off the waiting list when she turned 55 earlier this year.

Key points:

  • Adelaide has become the third city in Australia to offer dual kidney-pancreas transplants
  • It has the potential to transform life expectancy for local diabetic patients
  • Patients facing long journeys and hospital stays interstate are welcoming the development

But three weeks ago, she received a phone call that would change her life.

“I rang my daughter and I was hyperventilating … I said I got ‘the call’,” she said.

“I had been waiting on that waitlist and I was actually on dialysis for the last two years and was struggling with life … I had really got to a stage where I had run out of energy.”

Not only will Ms Stavrinakis receive the new organs, but she will now be able to undergo the procedure and gruelling weeks of recovery with her family by her side because a recent improvement at the Royal Adelaide Hospital (RAH).

The RAH has become the third hospital in Australia to offer dual kidney-pancreas transplants, behind Monash Hospital in Melbourne and Westmead Hospital in Sydney.

The service is primarily intended to help diabetic patients, who often require transplants of both organs simultaneously.

“It’s been a real God-send to have it done here,” Ms Stavrinakis said. “I feel very lucky, very fortunate, very blessed.”

“It’s just been amazing … to have my family support me here, to have them close by everyday and pull me through. I just couldn’t imagine having it done in Melbourne.

Until now, South Australian patients like Ms Stavrinakis would have to spend at least three months interstate to undergo and recover from the procedure.

Surgeon Shantanu Battacharjya said the availability of the procedure had the potential to transform life expectancy for dialysis patients.

“Generally when a diabetic patients starts requiring haemodialysis, the median survival of these patients at five years is 20 per cent, so that means 80 per cent of them will die on dialysis,” he said.

“A successful kidney transplant doubles lifespan approximately … but the transplanted kidney usually fails because of the diabetes.

“A simultaneous pancreas and kidney transplant prevents that recurrent injury to the transplanted kidney, and survival then moves to about 24 years.”

Ms Stavrinakis is the third patient to undergo a simultaneous kidney and pancreas transplant at the RAH.

Her daughter Anthea said finding out her mother was having the dual transplant in Adelaide was “like Christmas had come early”.

“It’s just amazing … this double transplant has changed her life, it’s changed all of our lives,” she said.

“They are planning for her to be able to come home before Christmas so that will be fantastic.

“She had no life before … now she’s got a bright future.”

Patient delighted to receive ‘gift of life’

Amanda McGraw, who has had diabetes for 34 years, has also now undergone the double transplant in her home state.

When her kidney started to deteriorate she was concerned about having the procedure interstate.

“My daughter was just about to have her first baby — that was a worry, I didn’t want to miss the birth,” she said.

Ms McGraw said having her family by her side helped with her recovery, and she was now getting stronger every day.

“Above all, I can’t thank my donor’s family enough for the gift of life they have given me because I wouldn’t survive without it,” Ms McGraw said.

“I’m not diabetic anymore, I don’t need insulin, I don’t need to check my blood sugars, I can eat what I like, when I like.”

For Mount Gambier mother Kimberley Telford the procedure became available in South Australia at just the right time.

“My timing was perfect,” she said. “As I found out I needed this operation, the procedures were about to start here so I got to be on this list and not have to go through the thought of having to go interstate,” she said.

Health Minister Stephen Wade said it was the kind of world-class service the RAH should be focused on delivering to reduce long-term reliance on the health system.

“Originally we thought there would be about six a year, but the program has been so successful that we now think there will be about 12 a year,” he said.