SALT LAKE CITY — Think of the best Christmas present you’ve ever received. A great gift, sure. You might never forget it. But David Cooper’s is better.
After years of health struggles, David Cooper, a Twin Falls resident, underwent a double organ transplant Dec. 1 at Intermountain Health Care in Utah, receiving a new pancreas and a new kidney.
As he recovers this month at his brother’s house, this Christmas will be different than any he’s ever had.
“It’s hard to talk about that without getting emotional,” Cooper said Dec. 15. “I just feel like I’ve gotten a lifetime of presents early this year.”
Cooper was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes 16 years ago. That’s somewhat unusual, he said, because it often occurs in children. He also had a viral infection in his late 20s that attacked his pancreas.
“It’s just been something I’ve struggled with for several, several years,” he said. “Because of that, diabetes is hard on the organs.”
Cooper said he didn’t pay as close attention as he should have to checkups for a year or two.
When he went to a doctor’s appointment in July 2016, “my kidney function was pretty much diminished entirely. That was kind of a shock unto itself.”
He began dialysis in December 2016. His doctor, Dr. Haroon Rashid with Magic Valley Kidney Institute, recommended he go to Utah to be seen about a kidney and pancreas transplant.
At Intermountain Medical Center, Cooper was told he had a few options. He could seek a live kidney donor, which he said is always a best match. Or he could wait and go on the transplant list to receive a kidney and pancreas from a deceased donor.
Cooper’s relatives, including his siblings, went through testing to see if they would be a good fit to be an organ donor.
“They all quickly went through the process and because of their own heath hurdles, none were a match,” he said.
Cooper was placed on the transplant list, but in a temporarily inactive status. He needed time to prepare for the surgery. That included meeting requirements set by surgeons and nephrologists, such as losing weight, getting additional immunizations, and undergoing angiograms and pulmonary tests.
Losing weight was the biggest hurdle, Cooper said. While on dialysis, his stomach was filled with fluid every night and flushed out every morning to remove toxins.
“That was just a huge obstacle to losing weight,” he said. “It was making me bigger and unhealthier.” It also left him feeling lethargic.
Despite the challenges, Cooper said he learned there are many who’ve endured worse.
“There were people and friends I saw in the clinics who had it so much harder than me,” he said.
Over the summer, Cooper began to learn more about better eating and sleeping habits. He starting losing weight.
“Slowly,” he said, “some pounds began to come off.”
On Nov. 1, he had an appointment with a new doctor, Dr. Donald Morris, a nephrologist for Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah.
“He just quickly reassured me that there was a lot of potential and he could move quickly to get me actively listed,” Cooper said.
His status on the transplant list was changed to “active” Nov. 17. Less than two weeks later, on Nov. 28, Cooper received a phone call saying there was a potential donor.
“There’s a lot of mixed emotions when they say there’s a potential donor,” Cooper said. “Somewhere, there is a family in mourning because someone has been lost. You kind of wrap your mind around that, and it’s painful and hopeful all in kind of the same thought.”
He received another call Nov. 30 asking him to come in for surgery.
The surgery began at midnight Dec. 1. Cooper received both of the organs — a kidney and pancreas — from the same donor during one surgery, which took five or six hours.
Afterward, “the surgeons just kept saying how pleased they were with the look of the organs,” Cooper said. They started working immediately, with no dormant period. “They just went right at it.”
Cooper spent 12 days at the hospital recovering.
“It was kind of a two steps forward, one step back kind of process,” he said. One day, he had heart palpitations, a fever and extreme nausea. He was afraid his body rejecting the organs. But the doctors remained positive, and slowly, things improved.
Now, Cooper is staying at his brother’s home, about an hour’s drive from the hospital. He’s required to spend at least a month within an hour of Salt Lake City. He goes into the doctor’s office twice a week.
He expects he’ll be able to come home in mid-January to Twin Falls, where he has lived for about 16 years. Cooper has been the managing editor of Progressive Cattleman for seven years, and previously spent nine years at the Times-News, six as opinion editor and three as city editor.
It’s natural to feel alone when you’re going through health challenges, he said, but he wants to encourage others. “They just need to find someone confide in, and to express pain and uncertainty.”
Above all, he’s thankful for his second chance at life.
“Organ donorship is such a powerful, living testimony of life,” he said. “You can’t really begin to express your gratitude for the family that made such a selfless decision.”