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Triple Transplant Patient Defies Early Prognosis

Doctors told Jim Stavis he wouldn't live past his 50th birthday. Today, the 63-year-old has written an autobiography about his triple transplant experience.

When Jim Stavis was 17, he was told he'd be lucky to live past his 50th birthday.

At that time, Stavis was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. Doctors expected him to be plagued by kidney and heart disease, blindness and amputation before succumbing to diabetes at a young age. While some of that prognosis turned out to be accurate, organ transplants have enabled Stavis to not only survive, but flourish.

In 2005, at age 50, Stavis received a heart and kidney transplant at Cedars-Sinai. He got a new pancreas a year later. In December 2017, Stavis celebrated his 63rd birthday.

"Having a birthday always makes you think about your mortality, and I'm kind of in overtime," he said.

Stavis began dealing with classic symptoms of diabetes in high school—frequent urination, excessive thirst and weight loss.

He followed his doctors' orders, which included two daily injections of insulin and testing his blood sugar levels. He adjusted what he ate and learned to be his own nutritionist.

"I hoped medical technology would offer me a cure one day, that all I needed was to live long enough," he said.

Despite his efforts, at 42, Stavis's heart briefly stopped and doctors performed an angioplasty to relieve an artery that was 95 percent blocked.

"That was my 'ah-ha' moment. Well, actually it was more of an 'oh-no' moment," he said.

Doctors told him time was running out, and there was nothing they could do.

"That was a dismal thing to hear from a cardiologist—basically, 'We did the best we could, and we're not sure how long it will last.'"

Stavis chose a new cardiologist, someone who understood the complexity of his case and focused on improving the four risk factors that were compromising his health—cholesterol, blood pressure, stress level, and blood sugar.

This kept him out of the operating room for six years, until his health took another downturn. He found himself in the hospital at age 49, confronted with congestive heart and kidney failure.

His cardiologist suggested transplants to replace the organs damaged by his diabetes and referred Stavis to Prediman Shah, MD, at Cedars-Sinai. Shah created a game plan for the three transplants.

"This was both scary and foreign to me," Stavis said. "Never in my wildest imagination would I imagine that having a transplant would be my ticket to good health."

"I wondered how this man was still standing," said Shah, director of Cedars-Sinai's Oppenheimer Atherosclerosis Research Center. "He needed a new heart, a new kidney and a new pancreas to cure his diabetes. When I mentioned the possibility of a triple organ transplant, Jim looked at me like I was crazy."

Stavis agreed to the bold idea, and Shah immediately put him on the waiting list for all three organs.

On Nov. 3, 2005, Stavis went into surgery, and 20 hours later he had a new heart and kidney.

Diabetes, however, was still a part of his daily life until October 2006, when he got a new pancreas.

"I couldn't remember having a functioning pancreas," said Stavis, who for decades had to inject himself with insulin.

"Of the three organs, this was the most liberating," he said.

Stavis finally was free of dealing with an insulin pump, testing his blood sugar levels and being overly conscious of his diet.

That Thanksgiving, for the first time in decades, Stavis had a slice of pumpkin pie.

"If I ever had a reason to be thankful, this is it," he said.

Since his transplants, Stavis has poured his energy into using his story to inspire others. He has produced a documentary called Source of Hope that raises awareness about organ donation. He also shares his story as an inspirational speaker.

For Stavis, his triple transplant was the start to a new life. Fourteen years ago, when his organs began failing, he didn't think he'd live to see 63.

"That felt like the beginning of the end," said Stavis. "But ultimately it put me on a path to getting my transplants at Cedars-Sinai."

From Shah to the transplant coordinator, Stavis said he truly felt everyone was pulling for him.

"The key for me, and as for any Cedars-Sinai patient, is that they focused on the aftercare of a transplant patient. You're their patient for life, and that's a good methodology," he said.

Stavis and Shah built such a bond that when Jim decided to write his autobiography, When Hope is Your Only Option, he asked Shah to write the foreword.

"Jim sent me a bunch of chapters and I read through them, and by the end I was in tears," said Shah. "It's beautifully written and really touches on his personal journey through some trying times, and how the role of a good family, a good team of doctors, hospitals, courage and the desire to get well helped him overcome it all."

Stavis talks with cardiologist Prediman Shah, MD.

Stavis is a grateful patient and supporter of the Campaign for Cedars-Sinai. Learn more about the Campaign.