Morrilton man undergoes double-organ transplant

By Tammy Keith Published November 10, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Nick Hillemann

Michael Huffman, 31, of Morrilton was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes when he was 8. He underwent a pancreas and kidney transplant Oct. 11 and makes weekly trips to Memphis, which are expensive. His wife, Ashley, works in the registrar’s office at the University of Central Arkansas. The UCA Staff Senate will hold a fundraiser for the family Tuesday in Conway.

MORRILTON — Michael Huffman, 31, of Morrilton said he could tell immediately when he woke up from his double-organ transplant surgery that things were different.

“I felt good,” he said.

For the first time since he was 8 years old, he didn’t have diabetes.

Huffman underwent a pancreas and kidney transplant on Oct. 11 in Memphis, Tenn.

It’s been a long ordeal, and his health is better, but his bank account has taken a hit.

“Stressful,” is how he described his situation.

A fundraiser for the Huffmans is planned for 5-8:30 p.m. Tuesday at Larry’s Pizza, 1068 Markham St. in Conway.

His wife, Ashley, 28, works as an assistant in the registrar’s office at the University of Central Arkansas.

The Staff Senate organized the fundraiser, in which the UCA employees will be servers, and tips will go to the family.

The Huffmans have four children, and proceeds will go toward medical bills and costs associated with making weekly trips to Memphis, he said.

Michael said he started having health problems in elementary school.

“When I was in second grade, I was constantly having to go to the bathroom, and I’d get in trouble for having to leave class and go to the bathroom,” he said.

“The nurse told mom and dad they needed to take me to the doctor, and … my [blood] sugar was 800. It was supposed to be like 120,” he said.

He was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, and he said he learned to give himself insulin shots.

“I wouldn’t let anybody give me a shot; I always gave them to myself,” he said. “Then, when I was little, … my older brother, he would help me a lot with it because Mom and Dad always worked.”

Michael was 12 when his father died at age 52 of congestive heart failure.

“The hardest thing when I was a kid is that nobody really understood what [diabetes] was. A lot of the kids, when I was young, it was one of those — they were afraid to be around me because they didn’t know what it was; but it got better.”

Ashley said that when she met her future husband, he was upfront about his diabetes.

“He told me, ‘Look, I’m a diabetic. I have these things going on,’” she said. “I met his kids and fell in love with them.”

He has custody of his two children, and he and Ashley had twin boys, who are 8.

“They were four weeks early,” she said. “I had gestational diabetes and borderline pre-eclampsia, and it went full blown, and that’s when they took them early.”

At the time, her husband was having health problems associated with his diabetes.

“About a year after the boys were born, I decided to go to college, and that’s about the time he learned he had high blood pressure. He didn’t have a job with insurance, and I wasn’t working,” she said.

They received health care at a free clinic.

“All he had was a high school diploma, so he struggled to keep in a job because of the intensity of the labor he was doing,” she said, which affected his health.

Compounding the problem, she said, was that he didn’t have health insurance for about 10 years.

“He kind of managed with what he had. We had several ups and downs; his sugar was bad about dropping when he was driving,” she said.

She said Michael had two automobile accidents related to his blood-sugar level, and he has back pain as the result of one of the wrecks.

“He couldn’t get disability,” she said. “[The supplemental security income panel] said, ‘You’re young; you’ve got a high school diploma; you’re fine.’”

The Huffmans both decided that the way to get ahead was for them to go back to school.

In 2008, Ashley got an Associate of Applied Science degree in business-office technology at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton. She worked part time while Michael went to UACCM, and in 2011, he received an Associate of Applied Science degree in surveying.

“We both got lucky,” she said. “We both got jobs in Conway.”

She started working at UCA in 2011, and he works for Crafton Tull.

Huffman, who has insurance through his job, had been going regularly to the doctor. His creatinine levels, which indicate kidney function, weren’t normal.

In October 2012, doctors told him, “The only way we’re going to fix this is with a transplant,” Ashley said.

The pancreas produces insulin.

The couple started going to Memphis in March and sat through classes to learn about the transplant and how Michael could take care of himself.

“They have to check your heart and make sure it will function,” she said.

A stress test showed a “questionable area” in his heart, Ashley said.

Michael’s kidney doctor warned about the dye used to perform a cardiac catheterization, but the transplant couldn’t be done without the cardiac procedure.

He was found to have 70 to 80 percent blockage in an artery, and doctors put in a stent.

Michael had to take blood thinners, which meant he couldn’t have the transplant surgery right away.

His kidney worsened, and he went on hemodialysis, then home dialysis.

“On Oct. 11, they called and said, ‘We’ve got your parts,’” Ashley said.

The eight-hour surgery was done overnight, she said.

Ashley said she and her mother received hourly updates.

“I wasn’t really that scared about it,” Michael said. “The main thing I wanted was to get rid of the diabetes.”

Michael said all he knows about the organ donor is that the person was a 16-year-old who died.

“They’re working perfect,” Ashley said of her husband’s new organs.

However, his 6- to 8-inch-long, 2-inch-deep incision got infected, Ashley said, and she is tending to it.

“I’ve never been a nurse, although my family says I’ve missed my calling,” she said.

It is healing, Ashley said, and she takes daily photos to show Michael’s progress.

He and Ashley make the trek to Memphis weekly for medical appointments.

Ashley is taking family medical leave, “which doesn’t pay you; it keeps them from firing you,” she said.

“Before his surgery, we went to so many different appointments, I used up all my vacation and sick time,” she said.

She has been approved for catastrophic leave and is waiting on a letter from the human resources department at UCA, she said.

At that point, she will receive 70 percent of her salary.

“There won’t be much of a paycheck,” she said.

Michael is getting short-term disability and is also on family medical leave.

Luckily, he said, his insurance pays for all but $15 of the $13,000-per-month medicine bill.

“We had to spend a lot of money going back and forth to Memphis,” Ashley said.

“Do I pay this bill, or do we eat this week? That’s kind of the bind we’re in right now.”

She said the UCA Staff Senate got involved when her co-workers learned about Michael’s surgery.

“They’ve been great,” she said.

Ashley said other UCA employees have sent thinking-of-you cards and financial gifts.

“Like most people, our expenses are just about, if not over, the income most days,” she said.

An account for the couple has been set up at Centennial Bank (formerly Liberty Bank) in Morrilton.

Donations may be made to account No. 9601279 to benefit Michael Huffman.

“I’ll be glad to get healed so I can go back to work,” Michael said.

The transplant surgery has changed his life for the better, though.

“I haven’t had [an insulin] shot in three weeks,” Michael said last week.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

Niche Publications Senior Writer Tammy Keith can be reached at 501-327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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