A Lifesaving Journey During COVID-19
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He’s a global traveler, so it’s no surprise that he was in Rome toward the end of February 2020, just as COVID-19 ramped up in Northern Italy. The real surprise came in an email from the University of Maryland Medical Center’s liver transplant coordinator, telling him to get home right away.
Robert Schieler, the Superior General of the De La Salle Christian Brothers, has visited 70 countries to keep tabs on the worldwide educational mission that started with Catholic Saint John Baptist de La Salle in 17th century France and now reaches a million students in 80 countries. As a frequent flyer, Brother Robert is used to last-minute, but fairly routine, changes in plans. Even so, recent twists and turns in his own personal health journey were decidedly not routine. First came cancer.
About a year ago, a multidisciplinary team of specialists at the University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) found he had liver cancer.
“Right away, I was very impressed by both the professionalism and the personalism of all the people associated with UMMC,” says Brother Robert. “The doctors gave me a lot of time, and then, after their own discussion, ultimately they said I was eligible for any course of treatment I wished.”
To deal with the cancer, he opted for proton therapy, an advanced form of radiation therapy offered at the Maryland Proton Treatment Center. “They felt they got rid of the cancer cells after just five treatments,” says Brother Robert. “Then every three months I had an MRI to keep an eye on it, and it was pretty clear that the treatment was successful.”
But there was more.
“They also told me that I had the beginnings of cirrhosis, and that would imply a transplant,” says Brother Robert.
Cirrhosis causes scar tissue to replace healthy liver cells, irreversibly impairing liver function and increasing the chance of liver cancer. Brother Robert was placed on the UMMC liver transplant waiting list as he continued his travel schedule. The periodic MRI scans not only documented the cancer cure, but also tracked the worsening of the cirrhosis, aiding in his advance to the top of the transplant list. The transplant coordinator’s email said it was possible that a deceased donor liver might become available within one to three months. To get ready for that, he had to be in the U.S., close to Baltimore.
He left Italy on February 28 and arrived home at a retirement community for the Brothers, about a half-hour drive from Baltimore. He had avoided COVID-19 when in Rome because he was miles away from the hot spot at that time. But he came home just as the coronavirus reached Maryland. A month went by, then came a life-changing call from Brother Robert's surgeon: There was a match with a very healthy liver from a young donor.
After a discussion about the risk of transplantation during COVID, with reassurances from the transplant team for a safe surgery, Brother Robert made his decision.
“I said, well, if you’re comfortable with it, and if you think it’s the right liver, and the hospital’s taken its own precautions relative to the virus, I’m ready to go for it. And so we agreed.”
Further, he had no concerns about contracting COVID-19 while in the hospital.
“They said they had pretty much isolated two floors in the hospital where the transplants occur and they’ve done all they could to make sure it was free of the virus. They were very strict with the personnel who worked there, and who came in and out of those two floors. And so with that assurance, I said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
On March 25, he went into a UMMC operating room for the transplant. He had two follow-up surgeries then physical therapy and went home after about 15 days in the hospital.
"I am most grateful to all the nurses, technicians and staff for their personal attention and care throughout my hospital stay."
Brother Robert says he’s pretty much back to normal now.
“I’m very pleased with everything as it occurred, and the hospital personnel have maintained close contact with me and are always available for any questions I might have.”
Never to be forgotten, Brother Robert’s donor.
“We pray very much for that person and his family. I think it’s a great gift. I know on my driver’s license, if I pass away, my organs are available for donation, because it’s a wonderful life saving gift for someone else, even though it’s a tremendous loss to the loved ones of that family. It’s incredible, the generosity of people.”