Inside Sarah Henderson Powell’s purse are a few things that she hopes keeps her young sons occupied during church. There are action figures, gum, and pens and pencils for drawing. Like any good mom, she’s prepared.
But it’s the other items that have been critical for her survival – Sugary snacks, juice, a glucometer to measure the amount of sugar in her blood; and a glucagon pen to provide an emergency spike when her blood sugar drops too low.
For years, Powell couldn’t leave home without her survival kit. All that changed recently when she received a second pancreas transplant.
“When you’re a mom and you are diabetic you have to be ready, you have to be prepared. You can’t just pick up and go,” said Powell, 35. Traveling overnight meant packing extra medicine, test strips – all the necessities for Powell to make it through a single day.
A native of Shelby County, Powell is a 2000 graduate of Shelbyville High School where she spent time performing with the drama club in such musicals as “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” Mostly she hung out with her friends. One of them had an older brother that Powell didn’t know well at the time but later became reacquainted with. She married Travis Powell in 2012 and together they have two boys Jake, 5 and Jack, 3. Travis also has a son Garrett.
Powell’s father, a podiatrist, encouraged all of his children to attend college. But Powell, the youngest of four wasn’t sure what she wanted to pursue, so she worked as a restaurant server and eventually decided to enroll in college.
“The best thing I did was get a serving job,” said Powell. “It gave me real-life experience and pushed me to want something more.” She also worked at a nursing home for a couple of years and discovered her gift of caring for geriatric patients. The next step for her was to enroll in a nursing school program. She had just completed her LPN and applied to the associates program when she was diagnosed with Type I diabetes. She was 26.
“Since I was in nursing school I got really exhausted and sick a lot but I just thought it was the stress of nursing school. I just kept ignoring it but eventually I got so tired I couldn’t even walk up the stairs to take a shower,” said Powell. “I actually prayed for Type II diabetes thinking I could regulate it with diet and exercise.”
Working with an endocrinologist, Powell said she tried various forms of insulin, pumps, and monitors to try to regulate her sugar levels. As she completed her bachelors in nursing, she said she struggled to keep up her strength. There were days her sugar spiked to 600 and then would crash to an all-time low.
“I was sick all the time and there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the highs and lows.” Within five years, she estimates she was in and out of the hospital about 20 times. Eventually, doctors determined that she was a viable candidate for a pancreas transplant.
On Nov. 11, 2016, under the care of IU Health surgeon Dr. Jonathan Fridell, Powell received a pancreas transplant. For two months she said she felt better than she could ever remember. But in February 2017, her body began rejecting the transplant and in July she underwent surgery to remove the graft.
She went back on the wait list and on Feb. 13 she received a second transplant.
“Sarah developed antibodies from her first transplant. This transplant is very well matched for her, but every patient is an individual, not a statistic,” said Dr. Fridell. “She felt she was in danger because of her diabetes and I’m very optimistic this time around.”
Powell was back home six days after her transplant.
“Sarah has always had a drive. Her boys are what keep her motivated,” said her older sister, Rachel Nelis. “She isn’t even asking to feel great, she just wants to feel normal like everyone else so she can enjoy her boys and be involved in their lives.”
Powell says the transplant gives her hope.
“I’ve always completed everything – nursing school and now this. I had confidence in the team at IU Health and I trust Dr. Fridell 100 percent. He’s been honest with me and I know he’s the best.”
As she recovers, she looks to her family for encouragement and support.
“My husband is one of the hardest working men I know. He gets up at 3 a.m. to get to work on time, works 12 hours and comes home, makes dinner, gives the boys baths and gets them ready for bed.”
Powell says she wants to give others with diabetes hope that there is a road to healing.
“I have to believe that life will get better. I have to believe in my amazing doctors and know that I can get stronger,” said Powell. “And all I’ve ever wanted to be is a mom. My goals are simple – I want to take my boys bowling or to the library, or just be strong enough to make them three meals and day, read them bedtime stories and tuck them in at night.”
--By T.J. Banes, Associate Senior Journalist at IU Health.
Reach Banes via email at T.J. Banes or on Twitter @tjbanes.