Alumnus puts heart into charitable effort for organ recovery

In an attempt to raise awareness for organ donation, one Penn State alumnus will be wearing a giant heart mascot costume during a 5K in August.

“I always tell people I hate being the center of attention unless I want to, and then I’m really good at it,” said 2010 journalism graduate Craig Smith. 

Smith, who received a heart transplant in October 2015, and a friend set up the first annual Second Chance 5K on Aug. 6 in their hometown of Johnstown. All proceeds from the event will go directly to CORE, the Center for Organ Recovery & Education. Following the race, there will be a gathering with food, beverages, a 50/50 drawing, raffle items and other events. 

While the 5K was a big step to start raising awareness, Smith said it has already “outgrown itself.” The pair has formed their own nonprofit organization called Second Chance Fundraising. They hope in the future they can set up golf tournaments, build scholarships for students and more to raise money for the cause. 

Smith first started feeling sick in March 2014. He had recently moved to State College following graduate school at Saint Francis University for a job with PFG Financial Advisors. Initially, he didn’t think it was anything too serious, but that changed rather quickly.

“We found out that I got a virus, which caused viral cardiomyopathy and it attacked my heart and basically destroyed my heart,” said Smith.

That’s when Smith’s life changed drastically. Doctors provided a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), which runs off a battery pack and pumps the blood for someone’s heart when it is too weak. 

Smith’s diet also changed. He had to start watching his sodium intake, eating lots of chicken, fish, lean meat, fruits and vegetables, while rarely having the chance to eat out. In addition, he eliminated alcohol and added around eight different medications daily.

Physically, he got tired faster, but wasn’t necessarily restricted.

But, despite the struggles, Smith said he’s glad he doesn’t know what caused the virus because it keeps him from second guessing what he might have been able to do to stop it. On top of that, Smith added that he views it as “almost a good thing,” as he lost 130 pounds when he was sick.

“I was quite a big guy before,” said Smith. “I put on a bunch of water weight when I was sick. Because my heart wasn’t working, I put on a bunch of extra fluid. Including that, it was about 130 pounds. I lost, just my own weight, was still about 80 pounds while I was on the LVAD. That kind of got me into shape and got me back to living a healthier lifestyle.”

For a year and a half, Smith carried the LVAD at his side, always having extra batteries and a charger with him as the batteries for the LVAD lasted about four hours. He also couldn’t travel much because he needed to be within a few hours of Pittsburgh at all times in case a heart became available for him. 

On Oct. 3, 2015, Smith had to go to the hospital for internal bleeding, which he said is a common side effect for people with an LVAD. There are three levels of people who need transplants: Status 1A, Status 1B and Status 2. Patients in Status 1A are considered to need a transplant as soon as possible. People at 1B, which is the category Smith fell into, knew they would need a transplant but it isn’t necessary right away. People at Status 2 are considered to probably need one at some point. 

Because of the internal bleeding, Smith got bumped up to Status 1A and was kept in the hospital until a heart became available. On Oct. 16, one finally did. With his diet less restrictive and his stamina rising, Smith went back to work at PFG on March 1.

“It’s not my own heart, but I’m living solely on an actual heart now,” said Smith. “Some of the meds changed, but I’m still taking a bunch of meds. I’ll be on some of them for the rest of my life. That’s anybody that has a transplant that’s on those things.”

While it may not be his own heart, Smith has proven that his heart is set on helping others by raising awareness. To register for the race, donate to the cause or get more info on, visit online.