Rachel Harris’ early adolescent years were filled with the kinds of activities that often consume a young girl’s time.
Between gymnastics training, dance classes, cheerleading practice – and school work – she couldn’t have squeezed in another hobby if she tried.
So at age 13, when she began losing a tremendous amount of weight, she undoubtedly attributed it to the sports.
Unfortunately, the shredding of pounds, Rachel soon learned, was due to the onset of type 1 diabetes, which landed her in the hospital for six days on the verge of a coma.
Rebelling Against Rules
Like most young teenagers, Rachel didn’t want to be different. And like most teenagers she eventually rebelled, determined to fight diabetes’ stringent rules.
Before long, she reached for that first candy bar, then another and another, downing the rich chocolate treat with a Coke.
“My teenage years were horrible,” lamented Rachel. “At first I struggled to keep my blood sugar under control, but then I didn’t care.”
As if dealing with diabetes weren’t enough, Rachel learned of the horrors of another disease when, at age 15, she lost her mother to cancer. The youngest of four siblings and the only one with diabetes, she and her father were left to overcome their enormous struggles alone.
With the passing years came a maturing and the understanding that she needed to get her diabetes under control. As hard as she tried, though, the erratic schedule of college life coupled with the poor choice of food caused incredible highs.
When she graduated with a master’s degree in counseling and began working, her blood sugars improved somewhat, but unfortunately, the damage had already been done, particularly to her eyes.
“I developed retinopathy when I was 27, and I’ve since had 14 laser surgeries to save my vision,” explains Rachel, who was yet to learn that was only the first of many complications to set in.
At that point she decided to go on the pump, thinking perhaps that it would be the answer to better control. But her body didn’t respond as well as her doctors had hoped.
Thankfully, it slowed down the rate of complications, but it didn’t arrest them.
“There was no consistency at all in my levels, and my blood sugars would bounce from one extreme to the next. One minute I’d be at 30 and a half hour later I’d be at 400.”
Rachel’s next tactic involved jogging and power walking. Yet again her body betrayed her, as the intense exercise had the opposite effect, causing her sugar to skyrocket.
The complications crept up one by one. She not only endured continuing laser treatments, but poor circulation and hyperglycemia prevented her from healing effectively, leaving behind unsightly scars on her arms and legs.
Her scariest moment came in 1995 when, as a camp counselor, she chaperoned a group of children on a hiking trip through the mountains. Although she checked her sugar before leaving, a nagging suspicion caused her to take another reading while on the trail.
The number had plummeted dangerously low.
“I looked at this group of seven-year-olds who I was responsible for and I was absolutely panicked for them. I ate as much as I could to get my blood sugar up immediately,” recalls Rachel, who has suffered such extreme insulin reactions that she was often afraid to go to sleep.
Because she lives alone, she always worried about not waking up in the morning. She had a plan in place which she communicated to those close to her.
“I told my family, friends and co-workers that if they didn’t hear from me by a certain time, that diabetes had taken my life. I also told them that this is a disease that I spent my entire life fighting, and if I succumb to it, I wanted them to know that they did the best they could to help me.”
Turning to the DRI
Dreading each passing day, Rachel turned to a friend in Miami for some emotional support who told her about the DRI’s islet transplantation trials. She requested a patient packet and submitted herself as a candidate.
On June 28th, 2001, Rachel’s beeper went off for the first time, signaling that the DRI had a matching donor pancreas.
“They asked me if I wanted to come to Miami for the transplant and it was the happiest, most exciting moment of my entire life,” said Rachel, who received her second transplant only a few weeks later, on August 3rd.
“The whole procedure was very surreal to me. I remember being in the OR, but things were somewhat hazy because I’m sensitive to anesthesia. But what I clearly remember is someone saying to me, ‘You have new cells now,’ and I was completely at peace, not afraid at all,” she shared.
Though she has been living insulin free for the last year, it has taken her some time to adjust to her new life.
“I have such a freedom from worry that it still feels like I’m living in a dream. Everyday I pinch myself and ask, ‘Is this real?’ It is such an enormous gift to be given your life back and I am so extremely grateful to everyone at the DRI. I can’t find enough words to thank them."
Editor's note: Throughout the course of clinical trials, the results and/or status of study participants may vary.