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Health problems take 28-year-old's leg, but not spirit

If you're looking for a synonym for "tough," consider "Tony." At a time in his life when he might be partying with friends or raising a family of his own, Tony Zabriskie, 28, is hanging on at Mitchell's Firesteel Healthcare Center, waiting for ne...

Physical therapy
Libby Olson helps Tony Zabriskie with his physical therapy recently at Firesteel Healthcare Center in Mitchell. A benefit is planned today for Zabriskie, who suffers from multiple health issues and is awaiting organ transplants. (Jordan Steffen/Republic)

If you're looking for a synonym for "tough," consider "Tony."

At a time in his life when he might be partying with friends or raising a family of his own, Tony Zabriskie, 28, is hanging on at Mitchell's Firesteel Healthcare Center, waiting for new kidneys and a pancreas.

"I'm at the top of the organ recipient list," he said last week.

He has been waiting for three years but remains hopeful that soon a special call will come, notifying him that donor transplant organs have been found.

"It could be any day," he said.

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He also knows expenses will come with it. He and his family will need places to stay and round-the-clock aftercare in the months after his transplants. In the meantime, he has regular physical therapy sessions to keep himself in shape for the big day.

The Mitchell community plans to lend a hand today.

Family and friends have organized a Tony Zabriskie benefit from 12 to 8 p.m. Saturday at Resurrection Lutheran Church, in northern Mitchell near the rodeo grounds.

The event will feature a lunch and silent auction and bake sale. Local businesses will match or supplement the donations. Donations can also be made locally at the Mitchell Wells Fargo Bank.

Wearing his "Bazinga" T-shirt -- he's a fan of science nerd Sheldon Cooper from the TV series "The Big Bang Theory" -- and sporting a goatee, Tony says he doesn't want much. Just a shot at a normal life.

"I am a religious person. I figure that if it was my time I wouldn't be here anymore. But I'm not going to give up until it's my time to go. I'm not going to give up yet, or anytime soon."

He has battled juvenile diabetes since he was 8 years old.

The disease has worn him down, shutting down organ systems one by one. As an insulin dependent, he must give himself four injections a day to control his blood sugar. He spreads the pain around equally, putting the shots in a leg, stomach, arm or hips.

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He has been on dialysis since October 2009.

Diabetic retinopathy, a damaging disease of the retina, has robbed him of most of his sight and infection complications following cataract surgery nearly took the rest.

"I could use more help with my vision issues," he said. "My eyesight makes it hard to do a lot of jobs."

In January 2012, he lost his left leg to circulation problems.

He's had seizures and, following one episode, was in a coma for four days.

"I was getting around pretty good with my new leg for a while, but my blindness threw off my stability," he said matter-of-factly.

To cope, he creates mental maps that help him navigate the places he visits frequently in Mitchell and Sioux Falls. He uses Palace Transit to get around in Mitchell and Sioux Falls Paratransit to get where he needs to be in that city.

Through the pain and fatigue that has become part of his daily life, he is remarkably upbeat. Self-pity isn't even considered.

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"It sucks to have to go to the hospital, but it could be worse. I've got two nephews who are great and a family who loves me."

His parents split when he was young. His mother Angie Petersen brought him and his sister to Mitchell, where Petersen attended Mitchell Technical Institute. She has been working at Graphic Packaging since the facility opened. His step-dad Scott Petersen specializes in installing wood and tile flooring.

Before diabetes began claiming him a piece at a time, Zabriskie graduated from Mitchell High School and recently worked as a youth counselor at Aurora Plains Academy in Plankinton. He's working with a Career Connections counselor to figure out what he might do when he gets better.

"I'm going to be doing something," he said.

What would he be doing if he could?

"I'd be riding motorcycles. I'd have a full-time job. I'd go fishing every day if I could."

There are other possibilities that new organs would allow. Possibilities almost too delicious to envision.

"A new pancreas would mean I wouldn't have to give myself injections for the first time in 20 years.

"I'd be able to sleep in, and that would be awesome."

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