David Duncan has many reasons to be thankful this holiday season. He recently celebrated the 15th anniversary of his kidney and pancreas transplants, and both organs are functioning with no signs of rejection. He no longer needs debilitating dialysis treatments thanks to the kidney transplant and is free from the insulin he had to take from the time he was diagnosed with diabetes at age 12 to age 39, when his pancreas transplant cured his unstable disease. But he is most thankful to the donor family who gave him a second chance at life.
“My surgeons left me with something else, too—a funny bone,” he says, cracking one of his many jokes. David has made it his life’s work as a minister, telling humorous, inspirational stories to children, and as a motivational speaker for LifeLink with the motto, “Any day above ground is a good day.”
“I went into Emory for a kidney transplant, and there must have been a two-for-one sale. I ended up with a pancreas, too,” quips David, who is 54. “I have a brand new life. The transplants lifted me out of the grave.”
Before his transplants in 1996, he was in renal failure, on dialysis and at the point that his nephrologist in Macon said he might not survive much longer without a kidney transplant. He was on Emory’s waiting list for six months before receiving a donor kidney and pancreas “from a pre-teenage girl who gave me a second chance.”
He pauses and remembers the extraordinary gifts from his donor family, “My chair is filled, but the chair for that family is empty. But they changed my life and it’s my mission to give hope to children of all ages,” says David, who serves as a chaplain for homeless, orphaned abused or neglected children.
“David is the kind of guy you love to have around,” wrote a former colleague, Pastor Bob Price, in a letter about David to the ETC. “He just makes you feel better. If someone asks him how he is doing, he might say something like, ‘If I were any better, I’d be twins!’”
There are a couple of things that could’ve dampened David’s positive attitude: He’s also a double amputee. Complications from the diabetes had left him with foot ulcers and poor circulation in his legs, which led to the amputation of one leg six years ago and the other a year later.
David and his wife, Shirley, have three daughters and three grandsons. “I don’t allow them to take care of me. I have no limitations. I’m active, watch my weight and take care of my own health—I am intentional about my meds and my life’s purpose,” he continues. “Pain is inevitable, but misery is optional.”
David writes notes each year at this time to his surgeons, Drs. Chris Larsen and Thomas Pearson, to thank them for their care. He also takes time to thank all the others at Emory who have cared for him over the years, from the front desk receptionists who are always so friendly, to the nurses, phlebotomists and doctors.
“It’s all about teamwork—they have no idea how inspiring they are,” he says. “We can’t take them for granted. Life is a gift, and it is up to each one of us to unwrap it and use it to serve others.”