Why Church of the Servant Sponsors Blood Drives

by Beth Karanicola, October 2010

It’s been over 13 years since my precious four year old son Michael died.  Many newer members of COS never knew my Michael, and it occurred to me that they may wonder why we sponsor blood drives in his memory here at our church.  I am honored to have the chance to briefly tell his story.

April 29, 1996.  Michael turned three years old.  He was a happy, goofy, energetic little boy in absolute glee as we celebrated his birthday at the local Pizza Hut (“where the best black olive pizzas are made, Mom!”).  Upon returning home, my husband Nick and I discovered Michael sporting the tell-tale signs of chicken pox, thanks to the inevitable passing along of the virus produced by his older brother Joe exactly two weeks earlier.  By the end of May, however, Michael was still a bit listless and the pox seemed to have taken much longer time to heal than with Joe, so when Michael complained of a sore leg, sore enough to make him limp, I took him in to see the doctor.  The PA didn’t quite know what to make of it, but admitted Michael to St. Mary’s Hospital for some tests.  Two days later, we heard the words, “We found a grapefruit-sized tumor near Michael’s left kidney,” and our lives were changed forever.  He was immediately admitted to DeVos Children’s Hospital where he underwent a biopsy to find out he had stage 4 Neuroblastoma, a hideously aggressive form of pediatric cancer that was (and still is) extremely difficult to beat.  The disease had already left spots on his liver and lungs and had entered his bone marrow.  Treatment meant up to 10 rounds of chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, and most likely, a bone marrow transplant.  Nick and I were in shock.  This was always someone else’s nightmare, right?

Michael took everything in stride.  His attitude was incredibly positive—he was up for the adventure and had complete trust that his family, the medical staff, and Jesus would do whatever we could to get rid of the bad guys living in his belly.  (“Just do it fast so I can watch Batman!”)  We were constantly amazed at his ability to rebound—to play and laugh and remain so child-like, yet he showed such strength and maturity beyond his years in coping with intense pain and annoying procedures.  By the end of September, after six rounds of chemo, Michael’s bone marrow looked clean.  A 7½ hour surgery to remove the bulk of his tumor followed.  Upon recovery, he was sent to the Mott’s Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor to have a bone marrow harvest.  His own bone marrow was aspirated by 100 needle pokes into his pelvic bones and sent to Los Angeles to be cleaned and readied for a self-donating bone marrow transplant (BMT).

In late October, Michael felt well enough to take advantage of a family trip to Disneyland sponsored by the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Michigan.  He was really feeling great and was basking in all the attention as his hair started to grow back.  The following week Nick and I accompanied Michael to Los Angeles where he underwent outpatient radiation at the LA Children’s Hospital in preparation for his BMT (bone marrow transplant) on December 2.  What we didn’t know was that since Michael would need a lot of blood-related products, we were required to drum up our own donors to help restock his usage while staying there.  But we knew absolutely no one out there!!  Pastor Jack gave us the name of a minister of a Christian Reformed Church located nearby, and other well-wishers shared the names of people to contact as well, so when this need for blood came up, we immediately put out the word. The local Californian CRCs had an inter-church prayer chain that quickly included Michael’s needs, and within the first week after our plea, over 30 people came from all over the LA area to donate blood in Michael’s name.  The woman in charge of the blood center at the hospital was amazed at the number of donors who showed up so quickly, especially knowing that we were out-of-towners from Michigan.

It was a wonderful show of love and support and a real testimony to what a community of believers can accomplish.  “Church blood is good blood” I heard from the phlebotomists many times.   I asked her to call me whenever someone came to donate for Michael, so when it was possible to take a break from Michael’s care I would go down to the blood bank and personally thank them.  Many came back up to the BMT ward to meet Michael through the thick plastic walls of his isolation room.  When I would tell Michael that this was a person who donated blood for him, he would try to sit up, then smile and wave at them despite his own obvious discomfort.  Few visitors left without tears in their eyes.  If I remember correctly, in the eight weeks that Michael was in LA, he used the equivalent of 22 units of blood, and over 50 pints of blood and plasma had been donated.  Without it, we would have surely lost our son.  Praise the Lord!

The BMT itself was a tough ride.  Michael needed packed red blood cells and platelets almost daily for the several weeks.  Finally things settled down and he recovered quickly enough that we were on our way back home on January 1, 1997.  The year had a promising start and we looked forward with hope and conviction that he had a good chance to beat this beast.

On March 20, 1997, with the help of our church secretary Ruth Huisman, our family sponsored COS’s first blood drive in thanksgiving to all the wonderful people of California who came out to give blood—truly the gift of life—to our little boy.  Michael roamed around the tables set up in the adult education area, happy as can be that everybody else was getting all the pokes except him!  It was so encouraging for Nick and me to see the COS congregation donating blood not only in tribute to the people of California, but also as fellow Christians who had rallied around our family while in such dire need, and could rejoice with us for the healing that had taken place in our son.  72 people signed up to give, and of the 56 that were able to give, 22 were first time donors.  It has been our most successful blood drive to date.

Unfortunately, complete healing was not meant to be.  As unexpectedly as it originally first hit us, in April, Michael’s cancer returned with a vengeance.  Despite more chemo, radiation, and even some experimental vaccines at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, Michael’s health rapidly declined.  He began needing more blood products again to help keep his counts at a minimal level.  We were able to celebrate his 4th birthday at Chuck E. Cheese’s, his favorite place in the whole world (“Can’t we live here, Mom?’), but by July we were told to look into Hospice services.  As a frantic mother trying to find anything that would save her son, I tried massive vitamin therapy and looked into other experimental treatments outside the state.  Michael finally looked me in the eyes one day and said, “I just want to stay home, Mom.  Some people die and some people don’t.”  So with his blessing, Michael spent the last few weeks of his life at home, surrounded by those he knew and loved.  In the early morning of July 22, after a horrible night of seizures and pain, he said his goodbyes (“I love you, Mom”), told us that he saw angels, and then died in my arms, his last words being “Up, UP!”  As I felt his body relax against my chest, I had a split-second vision of Jesus bending down in front of me, lifting my little boy out of my arms, and carrying him away into a light so bright, that I almost missed seeing my son sit up and smile in Jesus’ arms.

In November of 1997, Church of the Servant held another blood drive, although this time it was called the Michael Gerard Karanicola Memorial Blood Drive.  If it weren’t for the experience we’d been through, Nick and I would never have seen the direct impact of blood donation nor felt the urgency to help save other children’s lives in such an easy, simple way.  Now that the DeVos Children’s Hospital is capable of doing BMTs and other area hospitals are enlarging and expanding their services, the need for blood in the Grand Rapids area has been constantly increasing.

So we continue to sponsor blood drives at Church of the Servant.  Our first year we hosted two drives, later we added a third, and in 2010 we have scheduled four drives.

Would you consider making an appointment to come to church for an hour on Monday, February 13, 2016 and donate blood?  I’ll be around to personally thank you!