Craig Plumhoff’s treatment team encouraged him to rise from his hospital bed and take a few steps. “I tried to walk, but I couldn’t lift my legs,” he says. “My hip flexors were being attacked.”
What began as a persistent dry cough in 2006 soon afflicted Craig’s breathing, which grew steadily worse as doctors, who diagnosed pneumonia, flooded him with antibiotics to no effect. He wound up in the hospital, where physicians informed his wife, Mary Leslie, that he might not survive unless they could decipher what was causing his illness.
“She would stay with me most of the day and then go home and cry at night,” Craig says. “I was pretty much at death’s door, but she and all of my family were a tremendous support.”
Nearly a dozen specialists examined Craig for more than a week before determining he suffered from an autoimmune disease of some type.
After stabilizing Craig’s breathing, doctors encouraged him to start moving around again, at which point his inability to walk finally revealed the culprit.
Known as polymyositis, the rare disease occurs when the body’s immune system attacks muscle tissue. It can cause lung scarring—Craig’s first symptom—but it mainly damages arm or leg muscles.
“With this kind of an illness, there are three ways it can go,” Craig says. “It can go away, and you never have it again. Or you could receive treatment and keep it under control. Or it can’t be controlled. In my case, I was very fortunate that my doctors were able to control it.”
After leaving the hospital, Craig began treatment under the care of a graduate of McGovern Medical School at UTHealth who specialized in rheumatology. A regimen of immunosuppressant drugs kept the disease at bay, and soon Craig returned to his normal life.
When Craig’s physician moved to Chicago six years later, he recommended that Craig continue his care with Shervin Assassi, MD, at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School. Since then, Craig has seen Assassi for regular checkups to assess his disease level and make any needed medication adjustments.
Craig appreciates not only the high standard of care Assassi provides, but also the doctor’s nearly constant accessibility and genial personality.
“I don’t do well with doctors who act almost like machines,” Craig says. “I want to talk to a real person. Dr. Assassi is very gracious and easy to talk with, and anytime I’ve had a question or a need, I can contact him, and he’ll get back to me quickly.”
Craig also serves as an ambassador for the Rheumatology Research Foundation, the largest private funder of research into autoimmune disorders. The foundation provides a platform for Craig—its first patient ambassador—to share with clinicians and researchers how great a difference their work can make.
“I do everything I can to show my appreciation for what rheumatology has done for me,” he says. “Because without it, I would not be alive today.”
“Craig has a great story,” Assassi agrees. “He shows how advances in understanding and treating autoimmune diseases, combined with a strong physician-patient relationship, can help patients manage their conditions and live enjoyable lives.”
In addition to his appointments with Assassi, Craig diligently sticks to his medication and makes sure to get half an hour of aerobic exercise every day. Not only does he still breathe and move normally, but even with a suppressed immune system, he has yet to experience additional illnesses.
“I’ve been very blessed to have Dr. Assassi as my rheumatologist,” Craig says. “He’s dedicated to making sure my story
continues to be a good one.”