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Submitted photo of Cheryl and Roger Diderich

Cheryl Diderich in Wisconsin lived a full and happy life, despite having type 1 diabetes (T1D) for most of it. Kidney and pancreas transplant operations made this possible, so perhaps it’s no surprise that her dying wish was to “give back” to make a difference for future generations.

After her death at age 61 in January 2019, Cheryl’s husband Roger donated her entire retirement fund of $1.2 million to JDRF, the diabetes organization she’d supported throughout the entirety of their 37-year marriage.

Specifically, the money went directly toward funding the islet cell encapsulation and transplantation research of Dr. Jon Odorico, a leading transplant surgeon who serves as director of pancreas and islet transplantation at the University of Wisconsin Health Transplant Center.

“Cheryl never wanted anyone to suffer the side effects of diabetes,” Roger Diderich says about his late wife. Transplants gave her a life she never would have had, but they came with a host of other issues that she fought her way through. She was a fighter, and thought the least she could do was try to help find a cure.”

Post-death donations are not uncommon, and JDRF reports it has received over $135 million in estate gifts during the past two decades, with a growing trend in recent years. This is an important way for people to support a cause they feel was critical to their lives, and that’s certainly how Cheryl Diderich and her husband felt based on everything she endured during her lifetime.

Diagnosed at age 8 in 1957, Cheryl Diderich lived the first decades of her diabetes life in what’s sometimes referred to as the “dark ages of diabetes care,” since neither human insulin nor home glucose monitoring existed at the time — let alone modern analog insulins like Humalog or Novolog, insulin pumps, or continuous glucose monitors (CGMs).

Cheryl and Roger Diderich

Still, she lived an active and accomplished life and met Roger when they worked together at the Parker Pen Company in Wisconsin. They married in April 1981, and they went on to celebrate more than three decades together.

Roger recounts his wife’s passion for horses and horse racing, as well as teddy bear collectibles. For many years, they traveled twice a year to Lexington, Kentucky, for spring races and the horse sale and Christmas Shop at the Keeneland Race Course. While there, they’d enjoy touring the horse farms, as well as the bourbon distilleries and local wineries.

He also recalls how she loved to collect teddy bears, amassing more than 150 of all shapes and sizes. Another hallmark was her love for collecting hats, many of which were fancy enough to wear to the Kentucky Derby.

Cheryl graduated magna cum laude from the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater in May 1979, and a decade later graduated with that same distinction when earning her MBA.

She went on to a career as a manufacturing analyst at the Parker Pen Company. But since the company didn’t approve of married couples working together at the plant, she moved on to roles in human resources, management, and business administration at different companies while living in Wisconsin, then Kentucky, and eventually back in Wisconsin. She even started her own consulting business and taught university-level courses.

But as her diabetes and health issues worsened, Roger says she applied for disability benefits, as she no longer felt able to work full time. She took part-time roles volunteering at Junior Achievement of Wisconsin and teaching weekly classes, up until 2018.

Of course, diabetes was a part of all that. He points out that his late wife loved walking — an irony, considering how many broken bones she endured through her life and how severely diabetes-related peripheral neuropathy impacted her feet. Even back in high school, the neuropathy pain was so intense in her feet that it would keep her up at night. So her father would put her in the backseat of the car and drive around for hours; it helped her deal with the pain in order to sleep.

After she and Roger married, Cheryl would take 3-mile walks every day she could, sometimes starting as early as 4 a.m. Often, that meant walking while on crutches because of the many broken bones in her feet. Cheryl could walk faster on crutches than she could run without them, Roger recalls.

“One morning, I was getting ready to leave for work and she walked in the house and announced that she had been stopped by the local police with red lights and siren,” Roger said. “I asked what she was stopped for and she replied, ‘Speeding. He said I was going way too fast on those crutches.’”

Roger recalls that within the first year of their marriage, it was clear Cheryl would need a new kidney.

“That fall, her kidney function was so poor that she would come home from work and sleep on the floor right in front of our Franklin fireplace,” he told DiabetesMine. “That stove would be so hot that I couldn’t stand to be within 10 feet of it. She was so cold that the heat was perfect for her. Also, she never missed a day of work throughout all of that.”

At age 24, a year after their wedding, Cheryl received a kidney donation from her mother. She had already had one surgery the same year they married — a dialysis fistula implant. Through the years, she received three more organ transplants: a pancreas transplant in 1985, another kidney in 2002, and a second pancreas transplant in 2005.

Almost a decade after the second pancreas transplant, her team at UW Health removed the organ because they thought it was leaking and causing severe abdominal pain. That led to what her husband describes as the return to “brittle diabetes,” where it was largely impossible to manage blood sugars because of the volatile fluctuations.

As can occur due to transplant surgeries and the required immunosuppressant drugs, Cheryl would develop other health issues that required more surgeries and medications. These included Mohs surgeries for skin cancer, skin grafts on the back of both arms from necrotizing fasciitis, and months of therapy for wound vacuum-assisted closure (VAC).

After his wife’s passing in January 2019, Roger knew that she’d wanted to make a difference by donating to science. In Wisconsin, Dr. Odorico stood out for both his work in the transplant and beta cell replacement area and his relationship with Cheryl through the years. It’s also noteworthy that Dr. Odorico has a personal connection to T1D himself, as his daughter lives with the autoimmune condition.

Dr. Jon Odorico, University of Wisconsin

“Whenever we would be at UW Health for any reason, Cheryl would track down Dr. Odorico to talk to him. He would always take 10 or 20 minutes just to talk with her. I know he had to be very busy, but he always had time to talk with Cheryl,” Roger told DiabetesMine. “She was well aware of his research and very interested in his progress. That is the reason that the donation to JDRF is to be used solely for his research.”

Odorico is well known in the diabetes research space on transplants, stem cell research, and beta cell work. He’s been personally and professionally involved with JDRF and received funding from the organization for two decades, dating back to the early days of stem cell research. More recently, he’s been exploring stem cell-derived beta cells that can be protected from the immune system, in hopes of transplanting them with no need for immunosuppressive drugs, which can have serious side effects and complications, as Cheryl experienced.

Odorico’s work focuses on those immunosuppression issues that so often materialize after transplants. He said the $1.2 million augments funding previously received from JDRF and other grants and donors, which has helped generate test lines of genetically modified cells that have now been validated.

Going forward, the hope is to test these cells to determine whether they are protected from the immune system attack. This project is part of a larger collaboration with other researchers in this area.

“This is a fantastic boost to our research enterprise and efforts,” Odorico told DiabetesMine, about the donation in Cheryl’s name.

Looking back on how she received kidney and pancreas transplants in the 1980s, he finds it amazing how she lived her life.

“She was resilient and direct, and sought for diabetes to not control her life,” he said. “And she was smart to seek that kind of care, back then. In fact, if she hadn’t gotten the kidney and pancreas transplant at that time in the ’80s, she never would’ve lived into the 21st century. These therapies probably doubled her lifespan, and that’s important to point out. She really was a remarkable woman, and I think her story is inspiring in many ways.”