In 2004, Diane Gilletti, then 44, attended the Diabetes Research Institute’s World of Hope Conference in Miami.
She listened in awe to a panel of islet transplant recipients talk about their new lives and dreamed of the day when it could be her.
Since the age of 14, Diane lived with what she refers to as “brittle diabetes,” suffering multiple complications and always struggling to gain control over her blood sugar. In those early years, her mother served as her champion, never allowing her to be a victim or to feel differently than other kids.
“Back then, we were just starting to hear about islet transplantation and my mom told me I needed to stay healthy enough so that I would someday be cured,” she said. “I certainly didn’t believe her then.”
Staying healthy, however, was a tall order for Diane. At 19, she agonized over the possibility of going blind as retinopathy progressively damaged her eyes. Though multiple laser surgeries saved her vision, the complications continued. Her body was extremely sensitive to insulin and she lived in constant fear of a hypoglycemic reaction.
Living Alone, In Fear
“For about four years I lived alone. That was the time I was most scared,” she explained, recalling one nearly fatal experience. “It was the middle of the night, I was all alone, and I went into full convulsions.”
When Diane regained awareness she surveyed the damage – her bedroom littered with fallen lamps and knick knacks that had been knocked from the nightstand; bruises covered her body. Lucky to survive, she wondered what might happen the next time.
“I’m a third-grade teacher and I had to have an emergency plan for my students. I would tell them if I ever acted strangely or passed out, someone had to run to the office to get help,” she said. When Diane married, her husband, Nick, played a guardian role.
Severe hypoglycemic reactions happened more frequently as she got older, occurring every couple of months. Nick would watch over her as she slept, constantly checking for signs of low blood sugar. If not for him, Diane insists that she wouldn’t even be alive.
A switch from injections to the pump helped somewhat, but no formula of insulin would allow her get control. Her kidneys started to lose function and after a bout with a virus, they shut down completely.
“I went on dialysis and that was a huge blow,” she said solemnly. In 1997, Diane received a kidney transplant, but her diabetes did not improve and all she could think was, “What else can go wrong?”
Then, Diane discovered the Diabetes Research Institute and her life changed.
“I heard about Dr. Camillo Ricordi and not realizing that he was the top man, I called and asked to speak with him,” said Diane. She was put in touch with the Institute’s clinical islet transplantation team, who determined she was a perfect candidate for the procedure.
"Walking On Air"
After all the necessary testing, she was put on the waiting list for an islet cell transplant. “Then, I got the call,” said Diane, who received her first infusion of cells February 2004. “I was so excited. I was walking on air.”
Though she needed small amounts of insulin following the first transplant, Diane had never felt better. She received a second transplant in May of 2004 and she is now insulin-free.
Diane’s only regret is that her mother passed away before she could share in the joy of this wonderful gift. “I look back and wonder how I did it. How did I manage to get to work in the morning after having the paramedics at my house for a severe insulin reaction? I was so sick,” she said.
“Now I just think how fortunate I am. I feel fabulous. I have endless energy and a freedom I never felt before. I have so much self confidence – and no more fear.”
In 2005, Diane told her life’s story with fresh enthusiasm – her dream realized as she sat with a panel of fellow islet transplant recipients at the fourth World of Hope Conference.
“I used to spend each day surviving; now I spend each day living.”
Editor's note: Throughout the course of clinical trials, the results and/or status of study participants may vary.