Joey has had more than his share of type 2 diabetes complications. But then came the stunner: an out-of-the-blue, life-threatening diagnosis with end-stage kidney disease.
Joey McGrath was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes three decades ago at the age of 19, but in hindsight, he realized he’d been experiencing symptoms for years before that. Even as a kid, he often felt weak and fatigued, and sometimes his hands and feet tingled.
Still, when the doctor told him, “I was pretty devastated,” he said, adding that his grandmother’s leg was amputated as a result of type 2 diabetes. “It really put a downer on my whole attitude for a while.”
Despite giving up sodas and other sugary drinks, staying away from high-carb foods like pasta and rice and taking metformin, he struggled to get his blood sugar under control.
The fluctuations took a toll.
In 2006, Joey noticed dark floaters in his vision and he was diagnosed with diabetic retinopathy. In a successful effort to save his sight, doctors performed a vitrectomy, replacing the vitreous fluid in his eye with silicone and a gas bubble. He had to face down for two weeks while his eyes healed. A customized, mirrored helmet allowed him to see his surroundings.
“It was quite literally a pain in the neck,” Joey said.
Finally, a doctor determined Joey was insulin resistant. While his pancreas was producing enough for two people, his body wasn’t using it. He began taking insulin.
“My numbers got in check right away,” he said. “It was like night and day.”
But that wasn’t the end of Joey’s health issues. One night, his wife, Doloris, woke up in the middle of the night and found him staring at a wall and unable to respond to her questions. She called 911, and an ambulance rushed Joey to the hospital, where he was intubated. His blood sugar was off the charts.
Later, a nephrologist, broke the news: Joey was in end-stage renal failure and would require dialyses treatments to filter his blood.
“It was very frustrating that it came out of the blue – I’ve been under doctor’s care for years. Where was everybody on this?” he said, noting that people with type 2 diabetes should have their kidneys tested at least every year.
After nearly four years, desperate for a more permanent, less intrusive solution, Joey’s wife, Dolores, offered to donate her kidney. He resisted at first, but she insisted on being tested.
“It’s my life too,” she told him.
Initially, Dolores thought her kidney would go to somebody else, and in turn, Joey would be matched up with a suitable donor—a living donor transplant swap. But one day, while they were in the tax accountant’s office, she received the call she’d only dreamt about: She was an exact match for Joey. As they left the office, they jumped up and down with excitement.
“Whoever saw us probably thought we were getting a big refund,” she joked.
Within minutes after the transplant, Joey’s new kidney began to produce urine. After years of dialysis, which required Joey to only consume 30 ounces of liquid per day, he was ecstatic to drink as much as he wanted, particularly savoring a cup of orange juice.
His diabetes, however, continued to cause problems. A blister on his foot became infected and spread to the bone, which required part of his leg to be amputated. And earlier this year, he underwent triple-bypass surgery. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, visitors weren’t allowed in the room—an isolating experience.
“It was earth-shatteringly depressing,” Joey said, but always one to look on the bright side, it was while laying alone in recovery, that Joey stumbled upon a call for stories from Know Diabetes by Heart and is now a national ambassador for the American Heart Association and American Diabetes Association to help others learn about the triangular risk between type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic kidney disease.
Joey has become more active than ever, losing 50 pounds in the process. He was recently fitted for a new leg prothesis, and a continuous glucose monitor helps him better manage his blood glucose.
He’s making good use of his own experiences, volunteering his time to talk with incoming dialysis patients about what to expect, and now, helping Know Diabetes by Heart educate people with type 2 diabetes and their health care providers about preventing heart disease, stroke and chronic kidney disease.
“I didn’t have that when I went into it, and it feels good to offer that to others,” he said. “Education is the most powerful tool you can have.”