PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — She was the first, and remains the only, woman from Pennsylvania to become Miss USA.
But now decades later, Michele McDonald Boeke from Butler County is making news for another reason.
She received a life-saving double lung transplant at UPMC.
McDonald remembers the moment she was crowned in 1971 like it was yesterday.
She was 18 years old, attending Knoch High School.
“My mother had to make my gown, because we didn’t have any money or anything,” McDonald Boeke said. “I missed my senior prom, never been to a prom.”
She went on to be a finalist in the Miss Universe pageant and accept a contract in New York with the prestigious Eileen Ford Modeling Agency.
Exciting as it all was, it wasn’t for her.
“I just wanted to be home. I wanted a white picket fence and kids,” she said.
And that’s exactly what she got.
Now at 66, she’s a grandmother, but unfortunately, she faced a serious health problem.
She couldn’t breathe and needed oxygen all the time.
She had dealt with asthma for years, but she had also developed COPD with associated pulmonary hypertension.
She was never really a smoker, but her parents were. Her lungs were black and gray, and she needed a double lung transplant.
“It was very scary. You think, well, am I going to live or am I going to die?” she said.
The doctor had given her two to three years to live.
She went on a waiting list, and in June, came the call. She got a pair of new lungs at UPMC Presbyterian.
It went really well and only later did her surgeon learn about his patient’s past.
“The nurses find out everything, so they said, ‘Did you know you just transplanted Miss USA?’ And I had no idea. I was just happy she was doing well,” said Dr. Pablo Sanchez, the UPMC transplant surgeon.
She still has bandages but was out of the hospital sooner than expected.
While she’s not out of the woods yet — rejection and infection are still concerns — the prognosis is really good.
“If she continues along this road, which is a very positive one, we have people who are two decades after transplant and doing fine,” said UPMC pulmonologist Dr. Matthew Morrell.
While being crowned Miss USA changed her life, this was the experience that saved her life, and she would love to meet her donor’s family.
“I would like them to meet me to show them what type of person I am and how grateful and thankful I am,” said McDonald Boeke. “They gave me a life, really.”
A spaghetti dinner and basket raffle is planned for Cooper Hall in Saxonburg on Friday, Aug. 24, to raise money for Michele’s medical bills. It’s scheduled for 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.