Former contractor uses determination, ‘star power’ to fight back against cancer

September 18, 2000
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LEAMINGTON, Ont., Canada — There are probably a few mushroom growers around Leamington that are lamenting the disappearance of a local hvac contractor.

When illness forced Craig McCarty to sell his heating-cooling business three years ago, he said good-bye to many loyal customers, some of whom depended on his expertise to keep their mushrooms healthy.

Selling was a tough decision, but a relatively insignificant one compared to tougher decisions McCarty now faces. In 1996 he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells in bone marrow that attacks bone tissue and impedes normal blood cell production. There is no known cure for the cancer.

McCarty has endured several setbacks in his attempts to fight the disease. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments have slowed the cancer, but the side effects have left McCarty discouraged and frustrated — yet optimistic.

In his book Rinkside, McCarty shows a philosophic nature that has been an offshoot of his illness.

“I find that people complain sometimes when they have no reason to,” he writes. “Some people complain when they have lived a full life with food, lodging, family, and friends. I know it sounds simplistic, but the disease has helped me to become a better person.”

Craig is the father of Detroit Red Wing NHL star Darren McCarty, who has played an active role in his father’s battle against myeloma — a role that he has taken very seriously.

A/C offers a hook

Craig McCarty’s first exposure to the world of air conditioning came as an 18-year-old working in a Chrysler plant. His job was to test each car’s air conditioner.

“It involved nothing more than turning the engine on and sticking a thermometer in the discharge unit,” he said. “Because some of the units didn’t work, I took them to the repair shop where I learned how the system worked by listening to the mechanics. I found it very interesting.”

McCarty eventually left Chrysler and attended trade school where he took a two-year refrigeration course. After graduating he went to work for The Trane Company, but he wasn’t into the “big” systems that Trane specialized in. So, a year later he was in Leamington, where he started an apprenticeship.

Upon receiving his refrigeration license (which he still holds today), McCarty went to work for E&B Air Conditioning. Over a period of six years, he bought out both owners, finally taking over fully in 1978.

His markets in the town, with a population of 35,000, included residential and light commercial. Eventually McCarty branched out into plumbing and sheet metal work.

“In a small town, you have to be able to do a little bit of everything,” he explained. “You have to be very versatile. If you wanted to survive, you had to keep working.”

That philosophy led to McCarty’s experiences with mushroom-growing businesses. This avenue of agricultural hvac is more than just fungus in the dark. “The ductwork, heating-cooling, and humidity control all made it complicated,” he said.

“Everything was computer controlled. These jobs were as complicated as any low-temperature refrigeration job we had done.”

At its peak, the company employed 25 people and had an annual revenue of $2.8 million. The staff “mushroomed” during the summer to 30 or 35 people. One of the workers who kept returning in the summer was a young Darren McCarty. Craig strove to build his son’s work ethic.

“I was always hiring and firing Darren,” McCarty joked. “I was hard on him, but the lesson is, if you want something bad enough, you make the sacrifices to get there.”

Craig McCarty was instrumental in starting a “negotiating group” in his days as a contractor. This group was formed to give contractors better buying power, as well as offering educational resources or employees of member contractors.

McCarty said the group, Contractors Executive Organization, is up to 35 members today.

He eventually joined up with Contractors Success Group (CSG), because he felt he needed an edge against a growing “underground economy” in Canada. He also wanted to learn about ways to market his services.

Mike Robinson, president of CSG, called McCarty “a wonderful, thoughtful, and caring guy. He was the kind of guy who would always return your phone call and give you his time.”

Of course, McCarty’s ear for listening also extended to his customers. When asked what he enjoyed most about his business, the answer was swift: “absolutely the customers,” he said. “I thoroughly enjoyed meeting with them, talking with them, and dealing with them.

“I also had some great employees who stuck with me. One of them eventually bought the business.

“I also enjoyed putting out fires. I wanted to fix people’s problems. There was a great deal of satisfaction in doing a good job.”

Cancer strikes

McCarty’s health problems surfaced in October 1995, at a CSG meeting in Toronto. He developed severe chest pains and thought he might be having a heart attack.

But he was stubborn. He didn’t want to be hospitalized in Toronto, so he collected his gear and the employees who accompanied him, and drove 250 miles back to Leamington.

“I dropped the guys off at their homes, stopped by the house, and drove to the hospital,” he recalled. “Over a period of three days the doctors found out that there was nothing wrong with my heart, but there was something major wrong with my blood. My red blood cells were old and tired, and weren’t reproducing well. I was also overweight, overworked, and out of shape.”

He went through more testing over the next two months and in January 1996, it was confirmed that he had multiple myeloma.

“The doctors call it treatable, but it is terminal,” he said. “They suggested using chemotherapy to slow the cancer down.”

Chemotherapy began in January and lasted until March, when McCarty was informed that an operation called “stem cell transplant” would provide an even more effective means to fight the disease.

In this transplant, a patient’s blood is removed and baby blood cells are “harvested.” These blood cells, called stem cells, are infant cells that act as platelets or white blood cells, whichever the body needs.

Before the transplant, the immune system is “chemically killed” and the harvested blood cells are reintroduced into the blood stream. This keeps the “tumor burden” to a minimum and provides a better way to keep the disease under control.

“It buys you time,” McCarty commented.

The chemotherapy and high doses of steroids took their toll. He ended up with numbness in his hands, shaking fits, and severe mood swings. At times he stayed awake for days, then slept for several days at a time.

Time to get out

“My doctor told me I was a wreck,” McCarty said. “My blood pressure was elevated and he said I shouldn’t work. My wife, Roberta, was driving me to jobsites. She took a leave of absence from her job to drive me around.

“When my doctor told me I had to take a leave of absence, I went in one day and took all of my employees into a room. I told them I wouldn’t be able to continue running the company because of the cancer.”

McCarty asked some of his managers to run the company, but it became “like a ship without a captain.” The company began to lose some of its equity. It was time for him to sell.

“When I got sick, it was relatively sudden,” he said. “There wasn’t a lot of time to act. The hardest part [about selling the business] was not having something to go to every day. You don’t really appreciate what you have until you don’t have it anymore.”

Selling the business solved one problem, but many others lingered. McCarty’s full-body radiation treatment was having severe side effects. It took six months before he felt well enough to eat and digest food. In the meantime, he says he “rented food.”

In October 1996, McCarty had the stem cell transplant. He had to undergo intense chemotherapy before the transplant, which left his body with virtually no immune system. After five days of chemotherapy, his blood was reinfused.

However, his health troubles didn’t seem to get any better. He developed a disease of the adrenal glands that fall. In the spring of 1998, it was discovered that he had Grave’s disease, which affects the thyroid.

“Just because you have cancer doesn’t make you immune to other things,” he said. “You think you’ve paid your price, but it doesn’t always happen.”

In September 1998, McCarty had a brain biopsy to remove a mass. In March of 1999, he went back into the hospital suffering from calcium deficiency.

“My bones are very brittle, like glass,” he said. “During this last episode I couldn’t walk. I went numb from my hands to my shoulders, and my feet were rubbery.”

It is frustrating for McCarty. Because of the radiation, he has lost a lot of his lung capacity. For that reason, he stays away from hot climates. He also stays away from cold climates because of the numbness in his limbs.

“But I’m lucky, in a way,” he chuckled. “A lot of people with this disease don’t last as long as me. No one can predict how long I’ll live. I just don’t worry about it.”

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