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I was very saddened to find out that Steven Craig, an islet cell transplant patient that we have written about on so many occasions in the magazine, had died at the age of 43. It seems that Mr. Craig took his own life, and his death was not a result of his diabetes, or was it?
I had met him on a few occasions; and from outward appearances he seemed like a man who had it all - including a cure for his diabetes. This is why his suicide came as such a shock. Why did he do it? As I began to ask questions, pieces of an incredibly complicated puzzle began to fall into place.
As I mentioned before, I knew Steven and had been reporting on him since his first transplant in 1993 conducted by Patrick Soon-Shiong, MD. Before his first islet transplant, he was in real bad shape. He had constant pain in his feet and legs which made it almost impossible for him to walk. He had hard to heal foot ulcers, retinopathy and documented progressive sensory loss from nerve damage. (Steven's first islet transplant was published in The Lancet, April 16, 1994.)
After the experimental transplant, Steven had an amazing turnaround in his health. He no longer needed insulin injections, the constant leg and foot pain had disappeared, he was able to walk again, his nerve function improved and a foot ulcer healed in only seven days. In addition, he was able to have a full-time job for the first time in 10 years. He had increased energy and a general feeling of improved health. Steven received two more booster transplants, the last one in 1996.
The past few years he spent in a flurry of campaigning on the benefits of islet transplantation for his transplant doctor, Dr. Soon-Shiong. Besides repeated television appearances in this country, he traveled to Europe and Australia to speak to groups about his recovery.
Just recently, at the diabetes conference "A Day of Hope" in Palm Springs, I watched the television cameras filming him. He embodied our great hope for a "cure" for diabetes which we all wanted desperately to believe in. A local pediatric endocrinologist shepherded in a group of 70 youngsters with diabetes to hear Steven speak about islet transplantation. Most importantly, he offered these children hope. He then spoke to the adult audience of 1,500 people about his transplant and the marvelous work which Dr. Soon-Shiong had done.
Now reflecting on the tragedy of his death, I try to remember every nuance of that day. At what point did he give up his own hope?
That evening he seemed warm and witty. I had dinner with him and he was very engaging, fun and interesting to talk with. I asked about his visit to Washington, D.C. where he had gone to advocate for more funding for islet transplants. One thing I remember was that Steven truly wanted to help people with diabetes.
Another thing I remember is that Steven was walking with a cane, which is unusual for someone only 43 years old.
I think of that now and can't help but wonder at the more serious underlying stresses that Steven must have been dealing with. And that his life must have been more difficult than anyone except for his closest loved ones could've known.
The truth was that Steven's transplanted islets were failing. He needed to test his blood sugar often and took NPH insulin when his readings weren't low enough. A person close to him, says they ranged from 110 to 156. No one has told me exactly how many units a day he was taking.
Steven had also become dependent on Demerol, a very strong and addictive pain killer, similar to Morphine. This addiction was perpetuated by the often unbearable, excruciating leg pain from his neuropathy. He was reverting to his pre-transplant self. Besides being in pain he must have been scared too. Demerol eased the pain.
I also heard through the grapevine that Dr. Soon-Shiong had told Steven he was not eligible for any more islets. I've called Soon-Shiong myself to ask if this was the case, but he has not returned any of my calls, so this is still conjecture.
As I continued to look into the mystery of Steven's death I also found that he had had numerous personal entanglements including financial and marital problems. It seemed he was burning up his life as fast as the islets wound down inside of him. He was living his life like there was no tomorrow.
As with any death that comes so suddenly and shockingly as Steven's, there are numerous questions left behind that may never be answered. One thing is certain, Steven Craig made a brave and lasting contribution to the diabetic community. He was a foot soldier in our fight to find a cure, and his name will not be forgotten.
Jun 1, 1998
Diabetes Health is the essential resource for people living with diabetes- both newly diagnosed and experienced as well as the professionals who care for them. We provide balanced expert news and information on living healthfully with diabetes. Each issue includes cutting-edge editorial coverage of new products, research, treatment options, and meaningful lifestyle issues.