On June 8, 2019, Craig Beary married the love of his life, Mindy, in front of their loved ones. Among the crowd of well-wishers sat some very special guests: members of the UPMC transplant team, who saved Craig’s life.
A Challenging Diagnosis: Aplastic Anemia
The path to this momentous occasion started years before Craig met Mindy. In 2006, Craig was a college student at Clarion University in Pa. when he started experiencing symptoms typical of an autoimmune disease, including fatigue and jaundice. Craig underwent a bone marrow biopsy at UPMC Montefiore in Pittsburgh, which revealed the root of his symptoms: aplastic anemia, a rare condition in which a person’s bone marrow is unable to produce blood cells normally.
Over the next two years, Craig received biweekly blood transfusions to get his bone marrow cells to a normal level. In May 2008, he had a stem cell transplant at UPMC Shadyside in an attempt to cure his aplastic anemia. The transplant proved successful; his red and white cell counts gradually returned to normal, making him no longer transfusion-dependent.
However, Craig contracted graft-versus-host disease (GVHD) as a result of his stem cell transplant. GVHD can occur after transplantation when donor immune cells attack normal cells in the recipient.
“I lost the protective membrane of tissues around my mouth, esophagus, and stomach,” Craig explains. “It got progressively worse until it went to my lungs. They started losing function.”
To combat his GVHD, doctors started Craig on a treatment called photopheresis, which exposed his white blood cells to ultraviolet light to help control his symptoms. Eventually, his GVHD was eliminated. Unfortunately, the damage to his lungs proved irreversible.
Needed: A New Set of Lungs
Over the next few years, Craig’s lung function worsened. But despite his health issues, normal life continued. Craig worked as a 911 supervisor in Clarion County, answering emergency calls and dispatching police or fire departments as needed.
In 2013, a new member joined the dispatch team. Her name was Mindy Warnsing. The two hit it off immediately.
“We became friends. We had similar interests. She said later that my humor attracted her to me. I guess I’m a pretty funny guy,” Craig laughs.
Eventually, Craig and Mindy’s friendship blossomed into something more serious. As they considered their future together, Craig knew a lung transplant would inevitably be a part of it.
Craig had his first lung evaluation in 2010. For years after that, he was considered too well for a transplant. Despite bouts of needing a wheelchair, his oxygen levels didn’t drop low enough to earn him a spot on the transplant waiting list.
It wasn’t until 2017 that he was sick enough to be placed on the waiting list, then received three calls about lungs that ended up being false alarms, or dry runs. A dry run can happen if the donor lungs turn out to be nonviable or otherwise aren’t an ideal match for the transplant candidate.
“When I got the first call about getting a pair of lungs, I was in a state of shock,” Craig says. “I was hyperemotional. Happy and sad – it’s hard to describe. But the third call was the hardest one to go through. I had already been to pre-op twice by this point, only to be sent home. I had had to say goodbye to my parents and my girlfriend, not knowing if it would be the last time I’d see them or not. And then the lungs didn’t work out.”
Fortunately, the fourth call turned out to be the real deal. In November 2017, Pablo Sanchez, MD, PhD, FACS, surgical director of Lung Transplantation at UPMC, successfully implanted a pair of donor lungs into Craig.
A Wedding to Remember
Throughout the whole process, Mindy stuck by his side. “She kept me normal,” Craig says. “We’d go to wrestling matches, that kind of thing. She made me think I didn’t have lung issues.”
Almost a year after his transplant, Craig knelt on one knee and asked Mindy to marry him. She said yes, and they started planning a 2019 wedding.
When creating the guest list, there wasn’t any doubt about including a few VIP guests: Craig’s pulmonologist and medical director of the UPMC Lung Transplant Program, Matthew Morrell, MD; his transplant coordinator, Larry Boggs; and of course, his surgeon, Dr. Sanchez. Craig and Mindy also made sure to invite the UPMC nurses who helped facilitate his care.
“They were priority guests – right behind my mom and dad,” Craig says.
And so, on their wedding day, Craig and Mindy celebrated, dancing among family and friends, with a few lung transplantation experts mixed in.
“They act like they do this kind of thing every day, that it’s no big deal,” Craig says of his UPMC transplant team. “But they’re the whole reason I’m able to continue on with my life. It’s something I’m extremely grateful for.”
Photo: from left to right: Pablo Sanchez, MD, PhD, FACS; Mindy Beary; Craig Beary; Larry Boggs, RN, CCTC (Craig's lung transplant coordinator); and Matthew Morrell, MD.
If you, or someone you love, are looking for more information about lung transplantation, call 412-648-6202 or toll-free at 1-844-LUNG-UPMC, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, to speak to someone on the UPMC Lung Transplant Team.