Couple Receive Dual Kidney/Pancreas Transplants 14 Years Apart at The Miami Transplant Institute

By: Krysten Brenlla

For Cesar Hernandez, 66, and Dena Hernandez, 54, their romantic park started with their love for motorcycle rides and starlit campsites, which created an unbreakable bond between them.

However, the married couple of nine years share another bond – they were both diagnosed with type-1 diabetes as adults.
“Diabetes is really a silent killer,” Cesar said. “It was a roller coaster with my health.”

Before Cesar met his wife, he was insulin-dependent, and had constant battles with his blood sugar.

Despite his diabetes, he lived an active and healthy lifestyle – until his kidneys started declining in the early 2000s. Cesar reached a point where he needed hemodialysis, a treatment that filters wastes and water from blood.

For years, he kept his diabetes under control. However, when his medical team at the Miami Transplant Institute, (MTI), an affiliation between Jackson Health System and UHealth – University of Miami Health System, informed him they could transplant both his pancreas and kidney at the same time, he signed up immediately.

“It was really scary when my doctor told me I had to go on dialysis,” Cesar said. “But, I was blessed with an amazing outcome at MTI.”

After four years and three match attempts, the call finally came in October 2009 – the MTI team found Cesar’s match for both a kidney and pancreas.

“The first thing that came to my mind was the family of the donor,” Cesar said. “But I was so grateful to get this opportunity – not many people can say they received two transplants that saved their life.”

The successful dual procedure, which was a relatively new concept for MTI at the time, was performed by George W. Burke III, MD, FACS, a kidney transplant surgeon at the center.

“The major advantage to receiving both a kidney and pancreas transplant at the same time is that you are killing two birds with one stone; you’re taking care of your diabetes and your kidney failure,” Dr. Burke said. “At the time, Cesar was 51 and in good shape to receive two transplants at once.”

Cesar’s dual transplant ignited a new journey for him. Although his procedure was a success and his organs were functioning properly, he suffered from several complications due to his anti-rejection medications, including lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system, and issues with his gallbladder.

However, with help from the team at Jackson and MTI, Cesar surpassed his obstacles, and became cancer-free.

“The most notable thing is looking at yourself in the mirror before the transplant procedure, right after surgery, and a month after you’ve received the transplant. You’re a completely different person,” Cesar said. “Your face, skin, hands – your body changes completely. The pain I was suffering; it all disappeared. Despite the complications, the tradeoff for a healthy life was worth it.”

“Cesar has got such a wonderful attitude, despite the difficulties,” Dr. Burke said. “Diabetes is a terrible disease; a kidney/pancreas transplant totally changes the canvas for the painting of your life.”

Four years after his transplant, Cesar met his wife, Dena, and they live a happy life together.

Nevertheless, 14 years after his surgery, Cesar returned to Dr. Burke and the team at MTI. Dena needed a dual pancreas/kidney transplant to save her from the very disease that almost took his life.

“For years, I felt okay – not horrible, but not great either. I had constant high blood sugar, and always had to take insulin,” Dena said. “I got accustomed to feeling poorly.”

Just like Cesar, Dena lived a healthy lifestyle and kept her diabetes under control. Still, in 2021, the disease got worse, and her health declined, including her kidney function. For nine months, Dena was placed on peritoneal dialysis.

“My doctors were concerned; my diabetes prevented me from enjoying the things I liked to do with my husband and family,” Dena said. “Cesar turned into my caretaker; he knew what to do and suggested the same dual kidney/pancreas transplant procedure. It was a rough trip, but I was lucky to have had him on my side.”

Dena was placed on the transplant list on January 19, 2023. Nine days later, she received the call from MTI – they found a match for both organs.

“I was blessed with a gift that I could never repay,” Dena said. “My donor is alive in me. It’s something that I hold dear to my heart – Cesar and I; we were both given a second chance at life.”

On January 29, MTI’s kidney transplant surgical team performed a successful four-hour dual kidney/pancreas transplant procedure on Dena.

After spending seven days in recovery in the hospital, Dena was discharged home with a new lease on life, alongside her husband.
Today, Dena and Cesar are back home and take great care of their transplanted organs by staying hydrated, avoiding alcohol and smoking, and maintaining a balanced diet.

“We want others who may be suffering similar circumstances to know that there are options – you can get on a transplant list, prior to dialysis, and treat your diabetes and kidney failure,” they said. “There’s two families out there that sacrificed for us. They gave us an amazing gift, and the best way to repay that is to honor it.”

For the future, Dena and Cesar are looking forward to enjoying the time they have together, diabetes- and dialysis-free.

“There’s no words to say to the donor families and to the team at Jackson,” Dena and Cesar said. “They gave us life again.”

George Burke, MD

General Surgery