By Mary Pritchard, Contributing Writer
Shrewsbury – Having received two organ transplants in four years – a kidney from his sister and a pancreas from another donor – Matt Westerlind doesn's take his dramatically improved health for granted.
In January 2009 Matt received a kidney transplant, which he needed due to the effects of diabetes.
“At 2-1/2 years old, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Juvenile Diabetes,” he said. “At the time of my kidney transplant, I was literally knocking on death's door. My doctors told me they really had no idea how I was walking around and still working. I was in renal failure and had been experiencing a steady decline in my health for about three years.”
After Matt received the kidney, he was placed on the list for a pancreas transplant.
“I was on that list for three years,” he said. “Diabetes affects so many systems in the body, and to prolong the function of the kidney, it's better in the long run to have the pancreas transplant too.”
In August 2011 Matt received a pancreas.
“Pancreas transplant is not very common,” he said. “I'se been told I was only the fifth or eighth one done – it depends on who you ask (he chuckled) – at Brigham & Women's Hospital.”
Matt, who grew up in Holden and now resides in Shrewsbury, said his recovery from this transplant was more challenging than the kidney surgery.
“When I received the kidney, I felt better immediately after the surgery,” he said “Although my doctors say I's ahead of the curve in my recovery, this was much tougher – I was in and out of the hospital. There are still days I don's feel quite right, but I's doing really well. I had an insulin pump before the surgery and as soon as I had the new pancreas, my blood sugar went to normal – it was perfect.”
Matt says doctors expect him to get about twenty years out of this pancreas.
“The future is really unknown,” he said. “– if I get twenty years out of this and then go back to being a diabetic again, I'sl have to deal with it, but right now, I's so thankful for what I have.”
Matt pointed out that diabetes takes a toll on one's body in different ways.
“I used to have grand mal seizures because of my diabetes, which is common in pre-adolescents – most grow out of it as I did,” he said. “I'se needed lots of dental work and my vision is only 20/40 and that's the best it will ever be. Now that I'se had the surgery, I thank God I won's go blind – that's something I used to lose sleep worrying about.”
A custodian in the Wachusett Regional School system, Matt recently celebrated his 39th birthday.
“This is the first year I had regular birthday cake,” he said. “It's all surreal – growing up living one way and literally with the flip of a switch – I now live a “normal” life. That was a word I always noticed as a kid…I did the things other kids did but still, I wasn's “normal” – it took lots of planning and preparation to keep my blood sugar stable.”
Matt noted that while, as a transplant recipient, he is vulnerable to things like the flu or pneumonia, his life is much improved.
“I's much better off now,” he said. “The damage diabetes has done to my body is still there but hopefully my life will be prolonged. I's happy that the lives of the people around me are also better because they don's have to worry about me as much.”
Taking more than 15 transplant-related pills a day, including the anti-rejection drugs he'sl take for life, doesn's faze him, as Matt has always been on a combination of pills and injections for diabetes, but now the cost of his meds is huge. Friends and family have established the Matthew Westerlind Fund through Leominster Credit Union to help.
“I's lucky to have insurance – my anti-rejection meds would cost about $7,000 a month without it- but it will still be a tremendous expense for the rest of my life. Thankfully, my family and friends held a benefit for me to help with medical expenses. If people in my position don's have the support I'se had, I don's know how they's make it, financially.”
Matt is very conscious of his good health being a result of someone else's death.
“It's difficult to describe – at times, I feel awkward about my receiving this gift because of the death of my donor. I'se had a really hard time knowing that for me to not be a diabetic, someone had to die. I know my donor was a young woman and I's so grateful for what I have received from her.”