New lease on life


Jeff Saguta of Naugatuck spent years fighting for a kidney and pancreas transplant and now he finally has new organs and he is no longer diabetic. Saguta talks about his progress at his home last week next to his dog George. –RA ARCHIVE
Jeff Saguta of Naugatuck spent years fighting for a kidney and pancreas transplant and now he finally has new organs and he is no longer diabetic. Saguta talks about his progress at his home last week next to his dog George. –RA ARCHIVE

Borough man receives kidney, pancreas transplant

NAUGATUCK — Everything changed for Jeff Saguta the day he ran out of hope.

A severe diabetic since age 2, he had been on waiting lists for a new pancreas for 10 years. In the meantime, his kidneys had deteriorated. Saguta, 54, expected to be on dialysis in a matter of months.

On the morning of June 4 of this year, fatigue and nausea swept over Saguta in his Porter Avenue house as he cleaned up after his paper-trained dogs. He started thinking of his mother, who survived a concentration camp in Germany before dying in 1991.

“I said, ‘Oh, if you’re up there, please help me. I can’t take this,’” Saguta said.

Ten minutes later, Massachusetts General Hospital called.

Saguta underwent a nine-hour kidney and pancreas transplant the next day.

Now back home, Saguta is celebrating the happy ending to a decade of struggle with insurance companies, hospitals and his own failing inner machinery.

“My body feels at peace with itself,” Saguta said. “It’s just so fascinating that I have a whole new life.”

Saguta has come to think of his mother as his guardian angel.

“I believe in that,” he said.

When Saguta began trying for a transplant, his kidneys were mostly healthy but he needed a new pancreas to cure the diabetes that would eventually destroy them.

Saguta, a part-time teller at Naugatuck Savings Bank, has 80 percent of his insurance paid for by Medicare. The federal program would not pay for a pancreas transplant without an accompanying kidney transplant.

“They were telling me I had to lose my kidneys,” Saguta said.

After former Senator Christopher Dodd intervened, Yale-New Haven Hospital agreed to perform the pancreas transplant for free. Medicare would pay for post-operative care and state health insurance would pay for the anti-rejection pills Saguta has to take for the rest of his life.

Then Saguta was dealt another blow. The medical review board at Yale-New Haven concluded that he would not benefit from a pancreas transplant.

So Saguta waited while he got sicker and sicker, until his kidney function dropped to the 15-percent level needed to place him on the transplant list.

In the end, Saguta’s new organs came from a woman who had died in her 30s. His only frustration is that another sick person could have received those kidneys instead if he had received a pancreas in time to save his own kidneys.

“There’s so many people who need a kidney that it would have been nice if it would have helped somebody else,” Saguta said.

On the phone that June morning, the kidney director told Saguta his organ donor had taken drugs intravenously at one point in her life, although she was clean at the time of her death. Doctors had to examine the organs extra carefully before approving the transplant.

Saguta’s first instinct was to go through with the procedure. He reasoned that many other healthy donors could have done drugs without their families or doctors knowing.

He left the house right away, telling his partner, John Notar, not to come home from his job at Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. in Stratford. Saguta did not want to wait the 45 minutes that would take. A neighbor drove him to the Amtrak station in New Haven.

On the train, the anxiety kicked in.

“Of course I’m going to do it,” Saguta said. “You can’t pass up a set of organs, but your mind is playing all these games.”

By the time Saguta got to the hospital, he was panicking. He nearly destroyed his chance for new organs when a nervous episode caused him to pass out in the bathroom of his hospital room and smash his head against the wall.

Getting sent home, Saguta thought, would be just his luck.

One CT scan later, he was declared fit for surgery. The organs came in the next day and doctors said they were perfect.

Surgeons placed Saguta’s new organs in his lower abdomen, leaving the old ones in because of the complications associated with removing them. Saguta now has three kidneys and two pancreases.

Hospital employees had grown comfortable enough with Saguta to joke about his background as a child of New York City.

“One of the surgeons told me they put a little red sock insignia on my kidney, so every time I go down to New York, I’ll get severe burning, and the minute I leave New York, it’ll get better,” Saguta said.

Saguta’s life will never be completely normal. His body could reject his new organs at any time. He takes 16 different medications twice a day to combat that possibility.

If Saguta were uninsured, he would have to pay $8,500 per month for those medications, The operation and three-week hospital stay would cost at least $600,000.

Even Medicare would not cover the full amount, but Saguta has supplemental insurance purchased for him from a Jewish Federation fund for relatives of Holocaust victims. He only pays $15 per month.

Saguta’s main financial difficulty has been the temporary inability to earn a paycheck while he recuperates. Notar and some friends are organizing a fundraiser at the Polish American Club to help pay some expenses that Saguta’s income would have taken care of.

Saguta said he feels better every day. His appetite has returned and he has put on weight. He has more energy and he once again cleans his house to spotlessness.

After more than half a century, he is no longer diabetic. He no longer has to take insulin shots, although he has kept the drug and some syringes just in case.

“I never want regular soda again,” Saguta said.

Like many other organ recipients, Saguta mainly fears rejection. He does not know whether his new organs will last five years, 10 years or the rest of his life. Because the old organs are still inside him, they could keep him alive if his new ones fail, but then he could have the same problems as before the transplant.

Right after the procedure, Saguta said, he did not want to eat for fear of overburdening his new organs.

“When I go to bed, I hope they’re still working when I wake up,” Saguta said.

Then he remembers his good fortune, won at long last, after so many disappointments.

“Nothing in life is certain,” Saguta said. “You could walk down the street today and get hit by a car. … I want to become me again and I want to become better.”