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New kidney, new pancreas: Young mom thankful for life

JovitRobles laughs as she jokes around with her husbMark (far left) step-sons while she takes medicatihome Tuesday November 20 2012.

Jovita Robles laughs as she jokes around with her husband, Mark (far left), and step-sons while she takes medication at home on Tuesday, November 20, 2012. Robles, who has battled juvenile diabetes most of her life and has had multiple surgeries in the past few years, is thankful to be healthy enough to cook a Thanksgiving meal for her family this year. | Jeff Cagle~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 22, 2012 6:13AM

For the last 22 years, since suddenly dropping 15 pounds at the age of 8, Jovita Robles has been in the fight of her life against Type 1 diabetes.

A doctor once told her having this juvenile diabetes is like having a full-time job that you hate but can’t get rid of. And it’s cost her plenty.

Pregnant and hypoglycemic, the Aurora woman passed out while driving on New York Street downtown, and had she not hit a Hollywood Casino pillar, police said she would have gone into the Fox River.

In 2010, her second daughter, born three months early because of the diabetes, lived only seven weeks.

Then, a few days before Christmas that same year, she took one look at her necrologist’ face after a checkup, and knew she was in for a horrible holiday. Years of diabetes, topped with back-to-back pregnancies, had caused both kidneys to begin failing.

The following April, Robles’ husband Mark donated his kidney and she underwent a transplant at the University of Illinois Chicago. But problems persisted when her pancreas stopped making insulin. Robles said she “cried like a baby” when doctors found out she was a candidate for the experimental islet cell transplant, where cells from a deceased donor are infused into the patient’s liver.

The transplant was in January of 2012, but after only two weeks of “feeling totally normal for the first time since I was 8,” Robles awoke “feeling as if I was moving underwater and with a sweet taste in my mouth.”

Of all the participants in the study, she said, she was the only one to have the islet cells fail. Doctors also told her no other kidney transplant had been rejected so soon after the islet treatment.

“The doctors felt horrible,” she said, “but I laugh it off and say I have bragging rights since I’m the first person ever to reject so soon; and I baffled everyone in the medical field.”

Already on the organ donor list, Robles waited, knowing each day could be her last.

“I always had a huge problem with extreme low blood sugars at all hours but especially while sleeping,” she said. “I would wake up to paramedics at my side and IVs in my arm. If it wasn’t for family members’ alertness, I would have died from hypoglycemia.”

On a hot Saturday last July, she said her children saved her life when her 3-year-old daughter awoke to find her mother convulsing and ran to wake up her stepsons. Two days later, she received a new panaceas from a donor who had died in New Mexico. But Robles knows she’s not out of the woods yet.

Since July, she’s had pancreatitis and other infections that have landed her in the hospital for a month. “But I feel great ... and very blessed,” she e-mailed me earlier this month, on her 30th birthday.

And on Thursday when she sits down to share that leg of lamb and pumpkin pie she’ll so lovingly prepare for her family, it will be with an especially grateful heart.

“People have asked how I have been able to handle so much. And I say there are others who have it so much worse and don’t have any help from anyone.”

Happy Thanksgiving. May we all be reminded of the blessings that surround us.

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