Written by Anthony Moujaes
Somewhere in the world, a woman's life hinges on the compassion of Andrea Schilbe.
Schilbe, a member of Dearborn Congregational UCC in suburban Detroit, is a 22 year-old nursing student at Grand Valley State who volunteered to try to save a life as a bone marrow donor. She had surgery in early July in which more than a pint of the fluid was harvested.
"I have a compassion for wanting to help people," Schilbe said. "If this was my mom, I would want someone to donate for her if no one (in our family) could."
The only details Andrea knows about her recipient: She's a 40 year-old mother. She lives in the United States. She has myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), a precursor to leukemia. Since U.S. laws protect donor and recipient confidentiality, Andrea can't know anything more about identity of her recipient for one year. But she hopes one day to meet the woman whose life she has a chance to save. "I'm hoping she wants to talk to me, and I want to meet her and her family," Andrea said.
After Andrea signed up to be a potential donor, she was contacted by a Michigan blood bank that now acts as the link between her and her recipient. Her transfusion procedure was Wednesday, Aug. 8, Andrea said, and the marrow will take two weeks to graft.
When Andrea learned of the donor opportunity in a Grand Valley State email, she researched the process and spoke with her parents about it. After about four weeks of extensive blood tests, Andrea got an urgent phone call in early June from Michigan Blood, which works through the National Bone Marrow Donor Program, informing her of a potential match, and asking if she could donate immediately.
"I was extremely stressed at that point. You find out you're the person to save that person's life," Andrea said. "The point you need a marrow transplant is the last resort, because chemotherapy and blood transfusions haven't worked."
Harvesting marrow, though not an invasive procedure, is done with two long needles that reach into the center of a large bone such as the pelvis. A pair of surgeons removed more than a liter of marrow from Andrea's pelvis the morning of July 10.
That day, as Andrea was readied for the procedure after some last-minute tests, she and her mother Diana started tearing up as they realized Andrea was headed to the operating room.
"My mom wasn't scared or nervous. She was crying because I was crying," Andrea explained. "I was more nervous about going under because I'd never been put under before."
There were about seven or eight people in the room with Andrea, including two surgeons who performed the extraction. She doesn't remember much, aside from lying on her stomach on the operating table before hospital staff sedated her, then waking up hours later in a post-operation recovery room still feeling loopy.
Andrea wasn't bothered by too much pain after the surgery, but donating a liter of marrow left her fatigued and on the couch for four days. There were no scars or stitches from the operation, just two small puncture holes in her lower back.
It's been an experience Andrea will never forget and would repeat if given the opportunity. "Your chances of donating are very slim," she said, "but if I get called again, I'll definitely do it."