Tracy Gary and Holly Werlein-Gary almost never met, but fate and transplantation intervened.
They both nearly died before finding each other and are now making the most out of their second chance at life.
They’re doing it as husband and wife.
Holly was just 21 and visiting family in Cleveland when she suddenly became critically ill. She woke up three days later at Cleveland Clinic with a new liver and the realization that she was lucky to be alive. Voted Athlete of the Year in her senior year at high school, she said she and her family were completely shocked.
“I woke up and my life had changed. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything for myself,” she said. “Mentally, it was tough for me. I was kind of grieving the loss of my old life and starting a new one.”
Holly went back to college where she studied health care communications, and eventually went to work at Spectrum Health’s Heart and Lung Transplant Program in Grand Rapids.
That’s where she met Tracy.
He’d had three heart attacks and a stroke and was being evaluated for a heart transplant. She was his caregiver, but Holly said she always felt something more.
“I think I felt, right away, that magnetic pull,” she said. “It was definitely meant to be.”
Tracy knew he needed a new heart, but he didn’t qualify then for the transplant waiting list.“I was at my lowest of lows,” he said. “That’s when my mental game kicked in and I just started doing everything I could.”
Tracy took care of himself as best he could and exercised as much as he was able, but his condition deteriorated, and a year later he was listed for a heart transplant.
Holly had since started working at a different clinic, but Tracy came across her name on Facebook and reached out to update her on his status. They met for lunch and Tracy said things felt different for him this time.
“We just started talking more and more,” he said. “Another date followed the following weekend, then the next. Soon, it was every weekend. We were inseparable.”
Tracy received a new heart about a year later and Holly was with him throughout that journey.
“A transplant will change your life to the point you can’t imagine,” said Tracy. “You have a second chance at life. You can’t waste it.”
On June 14, 2016, the tenth anniversary of Holly’s transplant, Tracy proposed: “I told her I was on anti-rejection medication, so she couldn’t say no to me,” he joked.
The couple has been married for three years now – they even had a Gift of Life-themed wedding – and have since launched a non-profit to bring a transplant house to western Michigan. They’ve raised more than $150,000 toward that goal.
“It’s really important for us to give back,” Tracy said. “We want to honor our donors in the best way we can.