Westmead Hospital celebrates 30th anniversary of first pancreas transplantation

Willmot's David Atkins and Rhonda Atkins with renal physician professor Jeremy Chapman. Picture: Western Sydney Health

Willmot's David Atkins and Rhonda Atkins with renal physician professor Jeremy Chapman. Picture: Western Sydney Health

Since the first pancreas transplantation at Westmead Hospital in 1987, the procedure has saved more than 500 lives.

But for the first recipients who blindly accepted the decision of doctors trialing a new technique, survival was never a foregone conclusion.

David Atkins, from Willmot, is the longest surviving recipient of a pancreatic transplant at Westmead, having gone under the knife three decades ago.

At the time, Mr Atkins was at risk of blindness after his pancreas stopped being able to process the insulin managing his diabetes.

“I’m a fatalist,” the 66-year-old said. “It was a matter of: if it works, it works. If not bad luck.

“They [doctors] didn’t tell you very much. They didn’t know very much to tell you.

“I didn’t like things going the way it was [his health]. I said go for it.”

Mr Atkins developed diabetes after his body was crushed between two buses in a freak accident while working as a paper boy near Town Hall.

He lived with his condition for more than a decade but it eventually got the better of him. With his health rapidly deteriorating – his pancreas had “packed it in” – he took the gamble on a transplant.

“If I hadn’t I’d be blind. I’d be dead,” Mr Atkins said.

Westmead Hospital is one of only two pancreas transplantation centres in Australia. 

“In the early 1980s, Westmead Hospital developed a comprehensive research program to explore the benefits of pancreas transplantation for those with type one diabetes,” renal physician professor Jeremy Chapman said. 

“Thanks to pancreas transplantation, we have improved the survival of people with type one diabetes and kidney failure and prevented the disease from being worse than most cancers.”

Professor Chapman paid tribute to the donors and famlies who made transplants possible.

“I’d also like to thank the brave patients who take on an uncertain new therapy when we introduced it, and the research and clinical staff who helped bring an idea to reality and save hundreds of people,” he said.

Mr Atkins said he was thankful to the donor and doctors who saved his life all those years ago.

He now spends his time walking the family dog and working around the house. 

“You’ve got to keep a happy outlook, otherwise you’re lost,” he said.

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