Transplant nurse: Her husband was the most compliant patient

During the 30 years she has been a transplant nurse Debra Beal has helped hundreds of patients toward recovery – including one she calls “her husband.”

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

It was September and pediatric transplant patients were wheeled around the halls of IU Health University Hospital – not Riley Hospital – in little red wagons. That was back when Debra Beal first started working at IU Health as a transplant nurse.

“When I first came on board, there were more kidney and liver transplants. Now pancreas transplants have increased. The patient stays aren’t as long and we don’t see pediatric patients anymore. They’re all at Riley,” said Debra Beal, a charge nurse and three-time Daisy nominee.

Over the past 30 years she’s seen the IU Health transplant program grow by leaps and bounds. She’s also seen the faces of countless patients turn from despair to hope.

One of those patients is her husband Mike. Not only does September mark 30 years of her service with IU Health, it’s also her birthday month and the date of her 21st wedding anniversary.

Beal grew up and graduated from the former Soldiers and Sailors Children’s Home, in Knightstown, Ind. The home was founded in 1865 with the original intent of providing care and education for orphaned children of Civil War veterans. Over the years the state-run facility – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – expanded to meet the needs of a diverse student population. The campus provided both a Core 40 curriculum and vocational training in such areas as culinary arts, veterinary science, and building trades up until it closed in 2009.

“I came from a family of five and after my mom passed from leukemia my father couldn’t handle raising the five of us,” said Beal. She was in the first grade and the fourth of the five children – all who graduated from the home. Two of her siblings remain in Indiana and two others live in Texas.

“Because I grew up at the home I always knew I wanted to have a profession and be self-sufficient,” said Beal. First she thought about becoming a teacher but when a family member suggested nursing, the idea took hold and she pursued her degree at Indiana University.

She had been working at IU Health for 10 years when she met her husband through a computer dating service sponsored by a local radio station. Mike Beal says a friend talked him into subscribing to the dating service. He grew up in Wannamaker, Ind. and attended Franklin Central High School.

Their first date was to a little restaurant along US 40 – close enough that Debra could get to work on time. She’s worked weekends almost since the time she started at IU Health.

Not long after their first date, Mike Beal says he was on vacation in Utah and knew he was in trouble.

“I called her and she missed my phone call and boy was she mad. I knew it was the real deal then,” said Mike. After the couple married he often brought his wife dinner at the hospital during her weekend shift.

There are so many things Debra likes about working weekends but she especially likes her patients. “I think the big thing is seeing the impact on patient’s lives,” said Beal.

On Feb. 1, 2006, that impact became very personal.

Mike Beal received a liver transplant after being diagnosed with nonalcoholic stealtohepatitis (NASH). The liver inflammation is caused by a buildup of fat in the liver. Debra Beal wasn’t her husband’s transplant nurse during his hospitalization but she never left his side and admits she couldn’t resist taking his vitals and keeping tabs on his progress.

“They called me for the transplant at 5 a.m. and I didn’t get the transplant until 14 hours later. Afterward I looked up at her and said ‘I didn’t think I’d come out of it. I thought I was going to die,’” said Mike Beal. “She just stood there smiling. She’d seen it before and she knew I was going to be OK.” At the time, Beal remembers IU Health Transplant surgeon Dr. Richard Mangus was a fellow who worked on her husband’s case.

“I never imagined that situation would come into my life. My husband needed a transplant,” said Debra Beal. “It definitely put a different spin on my job. I often wondered how families handled it and did it so well. And now I know first-hand what it’s like to take care of a patient who is your family member.”

Mike Beal said not only was his wife his best “transplant support group,” but she was also his encourager – reminding him daily that there is light at the end of the tunnel. They now celebrate that transplant anniversary with trips to Hawaii.

“Transplant is different for every patient and probably the hardest thing I’ve been through in my life,” said Mike Beal. “She reminds me when to take my meds even when I’ve taken them. She cares and she’s organized and I’m the most compliant patient there is because I have no choice with her as my wife.”