When Joyce Schiavone donates blood, she does so with her sister, Linda Norwood, in mind.
Linda’s medical troubles began in her late 20s, when she developed pericarditis, a condition that can cause an accumulation of fluid in the pericardial sac around the heart. Pressure from the fluid can impair the heart’s functioning and cause life-threatening complications. Doctors drained two liters of fluid from Linda’s chest, and repeated the procedure a second time when the condition recurred.
Linda was fine until her early 40s, when she discovered she was unable to lift her arms over her head. A 911 dispatcher in California, Linda ultimately was diagnosed with Takayasu’s arteritis, a rare type of vasculitis that damages the aorta and the aorta’s main branches — in Linda’s case the aortic arteries in her arms. Restricted blood flow leads to muscle weakness and other problems.
In Linda’s case, the condition weakened her aortic heart valve, and she was scheduled for valve replacement surgery in San Francisco in 2009. Joyce traveled from Eugene to be with her.
During surgery, “her heart surgeon found a tumor in her chest the size of a hamburger,” Joyce says. The surgeon removed it, and tests indicated that it was benign.
Within two years, the tumor was back. It was so large that it interfered with Linda’s heart function and her breathing. She was diagnosed with terminal thymoma, cancer of the thymus gland, a small organ that lies in the upper chest under the breastbone.
In October 2011, Linda relocated to Eugene from California to be nearer to Joyce. Although she knew the cancer was terminal, she under went chemotherapy at PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield to shrink the tumor and help improve her quality of life. To build maintain her strength, she began receiving regular transfusions of blood donated through the Lane Blood Center. Soon she was being transfused every two weeks, then every week.
“She felt guilty that she was relying on donated blood to stay alive, that she was using so much,” says Joyce, who has been a blood donor since age 18. “But I told her, ‘Don’t feel bad. I’ve been donating for a lot of years.'”
Linda relied on donated blood until she passed away in June 2012 at the age of 54.
Joyce still donates regularly — “Every eight weeks,” she says — in Linda’s honor, and she makes a special effort to donate on or near her sister’s birthday, March 9. When colleagues at the Eugene Police Department, where she is records supervisor, asked how they could honor her sister, Joyce told them, “Donate blood.”
“For some reason, I always thought blood donations were for urgent needs” such as car wrecks or other accidents, Joyce says. “I was not aware that another purpose was to sustain life.” But cancer patients often rely on transfusions for strength during their battle with the disease.
After her experience with her sister, Joyce has a single message to potential donors: “If you’re eligible, you should donate blood.”