Darrin Walter with his daughters, Kayla (left), 14, and Kaitlyn, 12, as they celebrated Walter’s 40th birthday. Walter has suffered from the effects of Type 1 diabetes since he was only 12 years old. Today he is diabetes-free, following a pancreas transplant in December.
It was the best Christmas present Decorah's Darrin Walter ever received.
On Dec. 9, 2012, he was the lucky recipient of a new pancreas and kidney, courtesy of an organ donor.
"I think it's (organ donation) the most unselfish thing anyone can do. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be here," said Walter, almost three months after his surgery.
Although Walter is only 41, he has been battling complications associated with Type 1 diabetes for most of his life.
"It was the weirdest thing. I was only 12 and I had this cold sore, which broke down my immune system. It was called Virus No. 3 and it resulted in diabetes. I was insulin-dependent right away," said Walter, a 1990 graduate of Decorah High School.
Walter said while his condition was rare at the time, he was extremely familiar with it, having erud Heine, who also suffered from the disease.
"She was Mayo Clinic's first pancreas transplant 23 years ago and she's an awesome friend of mine," said Walter.
Because Walter was insulin-dependent, he spent the first 16 years with diabetes giving himself a shot in the stomach or legs four or five times a day.
"Then, 13 years ago, I was fitted with an insulin pump, but still had to give myself a shot every three days," he said.
"Diabetes affects everyone a little differently, and by the mid-90s, I was having some issues with my left eye. There are so many complications someone can have - heart disease, strokes, circulatory and kidney problems ... Your eyes and kidneys work hand in hand, so if you have trouble with your eyes, you have to watch your kidneys," he said.
"Plus, the medication you take for kidney problems can adversely affect your diabetes," he said.
Over the years, Walter has doctored at both the Gundersen Lutheran and Mayo Clinics in Decorah. Doctors have watched his condition closely as his health deteriorated.
A little over two years ago, Walter's health had declined to the point he was put on a waiting list for both kidney and pancreas transplants. Doctors at local Mayo and Gundersen clinics watched Walter's condition closely.
"For two years, I didn't leave Winneshiek County, just waiting for that day to come," he said.
When the call finally came, it was a Saturday evening at 10.
"They just wanted to make sure I was at home and I was ready. They said they believed they were going to have the organs and they'd get back to me at 2 a.m. I immediately called my brother, Dan, and told him this could be it and to possibly be ready," he said.
But when he didn't hear from Mayo, at 2 a.m., Walter phoned them.
"They said they were sorry they hadn't called back, but because of the extremely bad weather, 'we don't know if we're going to get them (the organs) here,'" he said.
The next couple of hours were an emotional roller coaster for Walter. When he hadn't heard anything by 4 a.m., he tried again.
"They said we'll call you back shortly," he said.
After 30 minutes, he finally heard the words he'd been waiting for.
"They said 'Come right now.'"
Walter remembered his anxiety on the way to Rochester.
"I think by about the time I got to Harmony, I was ready to go back home. I got really nervous," he said.
But he drove on through the blizzard. By the time he arrived for surgery, he only had 3.9 percent of his kidney function left. He was in a tremendous amount of pain, as the failing of his kidneys led to the retention of fluid and toxins.
He arrived at the Mayo Clinic at 5 a.m. and went into surgery around 10 a.m.
"It was an alternate group of people because the regular shift couldn't get in due to the weather," he said.
As luck would have it, the surgery went better than expected, taking only four hours for an estimated eight-hour procedure.
"It went awesome," he said.
"It's amazing that I'd had diabetes for 29 years. I was diagnosed with diabetes on my brother Dan's birthday, Aug. 24, and undiagnosed on Dad's (Erlin's) birthday, Dec. 9. By getting a new pancreas I was cured of diabetes. The day after surgery, the insurance company said they wouldn't pay for my diabetes test strips anymore," he said.
Although Walter was ecstatic for his second chance at life, he also went through some periods of doubt about the entire ordeal.
"It's a real struggle to think about someone else having to die so I could live," said Walter, who added in the end, it was Clint Williams, a DHS football buddy who helped him put it all in perspective.
"Clint is a nurse at St. Mary's. He helped me thinking about dealing with the donor ... He said to think of it as someone is helping you out now, and you'll be able to help somebody else out later," said Walter.
"I think it was at my third appointment ... they evaluate your state of mind about the whole idea. They say over 50 percent of organ recipients struggle with guilt. Others don't do well taking all of the anti-rejection meds. Those are the ones who fail. I had someone tell me those who have success never look back" he said.
A difficult letter
Walter said one of the conditions of having a transplant is that the recipient is required to write a letter to the family of the donor.
In Walter's case, the donor was a 24-year-old girl.
"The hardest thing I've ever had to do was write that letter. People react to things differently, and I'm not sure how I would react if my child was killed. She was only 24," he said.
"I started out by saying 'I don't know if there's any correct way of writing this letter. I told them thank you and that after 29 years, I have a second chance at life," he said, noting to date, he has not heard from his donor's family.
Walter said it will be entirely up to the donor's family if they ever decide to contact him, and he will understand if they don't.
"But if they ever do, of course I want to meet them and tell them thank you, thank you, thank you," he said.
Heine, who also referred to her transplant in 1992 as 'a second chance at life,' said she would like to encourage people to "really think about becoming an organ donor."
"For people like Darrin, it is their second chance. It's a wonderful gift to give a family. Everyone should talk about it with their loved ones so they know your wishes. It will relieve them of that burden," she said.
A great community
Following his surgery, Walter stayed at a hotel in Rochester for three weeks to recover, instead of the usual four.
Walter said although he continues to closely monitor his health, he feels lucky to live in a community where he has access to such great health-care options.
"Where else can you live and be an hour away from two of the best of the best medical centers in the world," he said, referring to Mayo Clinic and Gundersen Lutheran.
Before he was discharged, Walter alerted his doctors he would be switching to Dr. David Heine of Decorah for his weekly follow-up care.
"In addition to being an excellent doctor, he has spent 23 years with his wife, Kirsten, since her transplant. He's seen her medications change and seen how she's reacted," he said.
Although Walter has not yet returned to his work at Decorah Cleaners, he is feeling better every day.
"Once I feel good again, my first goal is to motivate people to get on the Iowa Donor Registry list and become donors," he said.
"When you mark that X on the back of your driver's license and the sheriff's department sees that, they still check with a family member. If you go to the Iowa Donor Registry website and sign up, law enforcement or first responders know you're a donor and they can automatically take the organs. Harvesting organs is all about timing ... There are even small things that can help out. I really think stem-cell research will be the demise of diabetes," he said.
Walter said he appreciates the fact the Preceptor Zeta sorority is having a "Clean Out Your Pockets" cash fundraiser for him through March 10.
Cash or checks payable to Preceptor Zeta can be dropped off or mailed to Viking State Bank, 321 W. Water St., Decorah, IA 52101. Matching funds will be provided by Thrivent Financial of Winneshiek County.
"It's so amazing having so many people be so willing to help you out, whether its just saying something nice or donating money. I can't believe all of the people who have called to support me," he said.
"If you've got faith, friends and family, you've got a future," he said.
He said he is humbled by the communitywide support, and it is greatly appreciated, as the bills continue to roll in.
"I had to pay to stay in a hotel for three weeks after the surgery and my anti-rejection meds were something like $11,000 a month. Some of the invoices are staggering," he said.
Walter said he also wishes to thank his mom, Wanda, for all of her help.
"Before my transplant, my health was taking a toll on my mom and my girls. My mom was crucial to my recovery, and her employer, Decorah Bank and Trust, was just awesome about all of that," he said.
Walter has two daughters, Kayla, 12, and Kaitlyn, 12.