2018 Rose Parade: Islet Cell Transplant Patient Had Groundbreaking Pregnancy
November 13, 2017 | by Samantha Bonar
Here, we meet float rider Beth Jenkins, M.D., a former patient with a remarkable story.
Beth Jenkins, M.D., 43, a pediatrician who lives in Newbury Park, California, has a lot to celebrate. Not only did a full islet cell transplant at City of Hope in 2009 make this type 1 diabetic insulin-free, she is the first such patient in the United States — and only the second woman in the world — to have had a successful pregnancy post-islet cell transplant.
Before receiving her transplant, Jenkins, who was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 18, had been experiencing a scary disorder for about seven years called hypoglycemic unawareness, in which a person no longer feels the symptoms of low blood sugar.
Dizziness, lightheadedness and shakiness usually signal to a diabetic that their blood sugar has dipped. Without these symptoms, Jenkins found herself unexpectedly passing out.
“I would wake up in an ambulance, or in an emergency room with an IV pumping me full of glucose because my blood sugar had fallen so low,” she said. “I had gone into a coma several times.”
The final straw was when she passed out in front of a patient. “I went to see my endocrinologist and said, ‘This can’t happen anymore. What can we do?’” she recalled. Her physician mentioned an islet cell transplant clinical trial at City of Hope.
“I went to their website and filled out an application online, and the very next day I got a phone call from the islet cell transplant department,” Jenkins said. Getting approved for the trial was a long process involving multiple tests, she said, and after she was accepted into the trial, she had to wait for a transplant match. “From the time I applied until I was accepted into the trial was a year,” she recalled. “Then I was put on a waiting list to find a match.”
In the end, under the care of Fouad Kandeel, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Islet Cell Transplant Program at City of Hope, Jenkins had a total of three islet-cell transplants to get her pancreas to function normally. Following the transplants, her body began producing its own insulin, and she no longer needed insulin shots.
“It was incredible,” she said. Most important, “I no longer have hypoglycemic unawareness, this constant fear of becoming unconscious unexpectedly.”
Seven years after her transplant, Jenkins reached another milestone: She became the first full islet transplant recipient in the United States to have a successful pregnancy. Her 15-month-old daughter Charlie is the proof. Immunosuppressant drugs and the stress pregnancy puts on the body (which causes blood sugar levels to go up) make carrying a child risky for this population.
“I knew going into this that I was taking a risk by becoming pregnant in terms of potential birth defects,” from the anti-transplant drugs, she said, but gained confidence from the fact that many women who have had kidney transplants have delivered healthy children. “I knew that I had as good chance of having as successful an outcome as they did,” she said.
Still, even with her successful transplant, Jenkins has to monitor her blood sugar.
“The transplant is maintaining my blood sugar at a normal level, but it’s not a cure,” she said. “My own body could reject the islet cells at any time. I still need to make sure that my blood sugar is under control. When people ask me if I still have type 1 diabetes, I say, ‘Yes, I do.’ My blood sugar has been normal for eight years, but I know that’s not a given for the rest of my life.”
As for her upcoming ride on City of Hope’s Rose Parade float, Jenkins said, “I am really excited about it. I was at the Rose Parade once when I was in high school, but I haven’t been there since.”
She’ll be watching the festivities from a different perspective this time, in more ways than one.
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