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Rita Hart has lived almost all her life with the terror of the ``what ifs'' that came with her diagnosis at age 6 of juvenile diabetes, also known as Type 1.
Her body's inability to regulate her blood sugars left her wondering: What if she went blind? What if she were confined to a wheelchair because of amputations?
She has already fought terrible bouts of hypoglycemia - low blood sugar - that left her drenched in the middle of the night, then wretchedly cold. She has panicked from blinding eye hemorrhages that started as a dark blob and once left her blind for two months. She has struggled with terrible tendonitis that attacked her fingers so fiercely that they would lock in place.
Quality of life? What's that?
It's something Hart, 43, expects to rediscover, bit by bit, now that she has undergone an experimental islet cell transplant. She is one of 16 people participating in a carefully controlled clinical trial at the Diabetes Research Institute at the University of Miami (www.drinet.org).
The cells from several donor pancreases, taken from cadavers, have been transfused into her body in the hope that it will eventually accept them as her own, allowing her to process food the way nondiabetics do, without the addition of pills or insulin.
It hasn't been easy. Her quest for a normal life has brought her and her husband, Peter, from Pennsylvania to Port St. Lucie to be closer to researchers in Miami.
Although she has been living free of insulin shots since Sept. 25, she is debilitated by the side effects of anti-rejection drugs that have weakened her but that must be taken for the rest of her life.
The elimination of such drugs is a goal of the transplant program, as is the ability to offer successful transplants to all who need them: a ``definitive cure.''
The difficult news is that she doesn't know how long her insulin-free life will last.
There is no prognosis, not really. This is new to everybody,'' she says.I expect them (researchers) to follow up for a lifetime.''
Her blood sugar readings have been good, and she has formed a bond with others in the program and with the doctors directing the research.
``They really care about how you're feeling. They don't treat you like a research subject,'' she says.
This normalcy is new to Hart, and she treasures it. She didn't even know the feeling of hunger before, because she had to eat regimentedly to maintain her blood sugar levels.
``If I didn't feel like eating a meal, I didn't have to,'' she marvels of her new freedom.
``How can I explain how incredibly wonderful it was to no longer need to inject insulin, or to worry about carrying food, or about the hypoglycemic reactions that had previously come without warning?'' she says.
Maybe, in time, she won't need to, and the trials will conclude with positive answers for a process that will be open to more and more diabetics.
(The Cox web site is at http://www.coxnews.com )
c.2003 Cox News Service