Perseverance Brings Pulmonary Fibrosis Patient to Finish Line

By: Mattie Winowitch

Frank Tarwacki knew something wasn’t right in 2014. It was the tightness in his chest when he walked up the stairs. It was the shortness of breath when he pushed the lawn mower.

“I thought it was just a cold at first, but once it lasted a few months my daughter told me to go get checked out by my doctor,” said Tarwacki, 68.

After seeking treatment at UPMC, his pulmonology team began running several tests to determine what was wrong. Dr. Daniel Kass, director of the Dorothy P. and Richard P. Simmons Center for Interstitial Lung Disease at UPMC, explained some of the individualized care Tarwacki received that he most likely wouldn’t get anywhere else.

“A great example of what makes the Simmons Center special is that we spend a lot of time talking about oxygen and what it’s designed to do in the human body,” Kass said. “Most pulmonology centers test oxygen levels by having the patient walk on a flat surface. Our patients walk on an inclined treadmill – that way, they’re working harder, and we can fine-tune their oxygen needs.”

After several specialized tests and a lung biopsy, Tarwacki was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a progressive scarring of the lungs. After years of clinical trial medications, he ended up on the lung transplant waiting list December of 2017.

“My doctors told me I didn’t have much time left to live without new lungs — maybe under two weeks,” Tarwacki said. “Knowing how long it could take to get a match on the transplant list, I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

Less than six days later, the Whitehall resident was notified that they located a pair of lungs, and he happened to be a perfect match. It was, in his eyes, a miracle.

“My doctors couldn’t believe I’d survived three years, let alone six days,” he said. “I know it was thanks to the individual care my doctors provided, as well as my overall care at UPMC. I feel beyond blessed.”

After his successful double-lung transplant, Tarwacki left four years of illness behind him. Looking back, he said he is thankful for his second chance at life, as well as the care he received from his doctors and surgeons who were there for him along the way.

“When I would go see Dr. Kass, he would always order me different tests,” Tarwacki said. “It was quite a journey because, with more testing, my condition worsened – but nothing he did was unnecessary. He truly listened to how I felt and took his time caring for me, and I wouldn’t be here today without him”

In addition to Kass, Tarwacki had another major support system cheering him on throughout his pulmonary fibrosis journey: his wife, Karen Tarwacki, 60. As a seasoned medical professional herself, she was there for the ins and outs of her husband’s treatments and surgeries.

That is, as much as she could be.

While he was receiving treatments and preparing for his transplant, his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. As a married couple who just celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary, she knew she had to stay strong for her husband, so as he went through his treatments she postponed her own.

“I needed a double mastectomy, but I knew my Frank needed someone to take care of him,” she said. “He fought for me. I fought for him. We fought for each other.”

She has since received her necessary treatments and surgeries and is completely cancer-free. Today, she appreciates the care her husband is now able to give her thanks to his newfound strength and energy post-transplant.

“Most days, we’re just happy to be able to sit on the couch next to each other,” Karen Tarwacki said. “It’s a great feeling knowing we are both OK again.”

The couple recently celebrated their health at UPMC’s Violet Rippy 5K for Pulmonary Fibrosis. Kass, who was in attendance during the second annual event, reflected on how far his patient has come.

“Frank fully took advantage of every treatment we provided,” he said. “He was at this year’s 5K walk, but he wasn’t there last year. That’s an indicator of just how sick and impaired he was. This year, he returned triumphantly to walk, and he came out on top – he came out victorious.”

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