The Grapevine

UK Woman Gets Pancreas Transplant After Fear Of Needles Prevents Her From Properly Managing Diabetes

Fear of needles
Type 1 diabetics rely on insulin therapy and treatments to manage the condition. Heather Aitken, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sue York is the first woman to get a pancreas transplant necessitated by a needle phobia.

Newser reported York, 55, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age 7. This type of diabetes means the body does not produce insulin and patients rely on insulin therapy and treatments, some of which require needle injections. And York's needle phobia made it nearly impossible to manage her disease.

According to one study, as many as one in 10 people have a fear of needles —  it’s actually one of the most common reasons people put off their flu shut.

When speaking with BBC's Joanna Gosling, York explained she was able to measure her insulin by "distancing herself" or "switching herself off" when it came time for injections. But there was still a problem when it came time to put the needle in her body.

"I would shake, sometimes I would shake […] uncontrollably, and I would have to put it down and walk away,"she said. "Other times, because I would begin to feel extremely sick, sometimes I would vomit — it got to a point where I was beginning to seriously struggle to actually maintain doing two injections a day."

According to the American Diabetes Association, pancreas transplantation is reserved for type 1 diabetics experiencing serious complications — most often when patients need a new kidney. Typically, the ADA reported, part or all of a new pancreas is surgically implanted, leaving the old pancreas alone to make digestive enzymes as usual. Though it doesn’t further complicate the disease, transplants can be risky. The new pancreas is foreign to the body and the immune system may attack it, increasing risk for rejection.

York reached a critical point in 2012 when new guidelines from the UK's Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency required diabetic drivers check blood glucose levels before driving and once every two hours behind the wheel. This could be done with a finger prick, but on top of the two injections she needed to administer each day, York found it to be "too many needles, too many invasions into the flesh."

It took two years before York was put on a waiting list to receive a transplant. There were concerns over her need for the transplant, given her healthy kidney, and over whether a fear of needles was reason enough to get a new pancreas.

York’s surgeon Raman Dhanda told BBC it was hard decision to make…"because this was clearly a very exceptional case." He said there are national and international guidelines in place to make sure transplants are given to those who need them most.

"My [first] encounter with her … was when I saw her on the transplant ward waiting for the transplant," Dhanda said. "Clearly she was very terrified. My main worry was how we’re even going to get some blood tests before we decided her suitability to go ahead with the transplants."

In the end, York was deemed eligible and now, post-transplant, feels "incredible" and "full of energy."

"No longer am I struggling to walk up a flight of stairs, getting breathless walking into the wind," she said. "No longer is my skin yellow or grey. No longer do I look constantly exhausted."

The ADA notes these are some of the benefits associated with transplantation. It's also possible for type 1 diabetics to maintain a normal blood glucose level without taking insulin, and experience no more or even improved nerve damage. York told BBC her eyesight improved after the surgery, and the sensation she lost in her feet had returned.

"I don't know who my donor is, but I thank them and their family from the bottom of my heart," she said.

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