A life-saving Clarion connection

August 16, 2017
David McFarland
Marilouise "Mel" Michel and Tammy Pawlak got to know each through a mutual friend and Clarion alum, Stevette Wano Rosen. Michel then served as a liver donor for Pawlak June 6.

The connection between Clarion alumni is truly something special. Spanning continents and generations, it helps people find jobs and make friends in new places. It even saves lives.

For the first time in weeks, Clarion University theatre professor Marilouise "Mel" Michel had some downtime. It was "tech week" for the university's spring musical, "Violet." The cast and crew were preparing for a full run-through of the musical – directed by Michel – and, like so many others in moments like this, Michel quickly logged in to Facebook. As she scrolled past news stories, political opinions and artfully framed pictures of food, a post from a friend caught her eye. In it, Stevette Wano Rosen ('96) made an impassioned plea on behalf of Tammy Pawlak ('94), asking for a kind-hearted individual to consider donating part of his or her liver to Pawlak, in an effort to save her life.

"I knew there had to be someone out there who (had Type O+ blood), who could afford to take the month or so off of work for the transplant procedure, and who would be willing to save a life," Rosen said.

Michel thought about the post for a moment, and sent a private message to Rosen. The two had met two decades prior, when Rosen was a student at Clarion, and they stayed in touch over the years, largely through social media. After a few "catching up" messages, Michel asked about Pawlak.

David McFarland
CU professor Mel Michel poses with Tammy Pawlak and Pawlak's daughter. The ladies now share a special bond through organ donation, but also because of Clarion University.

She learned, in this and subsequent conversations, that Pawlak and Rosen had been friends since working together while Rosen was attending Clarion University. They, too, had stayed in touch over the years, despite the distance between them (Rosen lives in Pittsburgh, while Pawlak lives in Baltimore). Pawlak, Rosen said, had been "sick for years," undergoing numerous tests and operations to keep her alive. In 2016, Rosen learned that Pawlak needed a liver after complications from an open-heart operation, and in February 2017, on her way to attend a charity event, Rosen "stopped and thought, 'How can I do this, and not do whatever I can to help Tammy?'" When she got home, she posted to Facebook about Pawlak's situation.

Michel responded the next day. During a brief lull in their conversation, Michel finally typed: "I'm O+."

According to Michel, every response from Rosen after that message was in all caps, excitedly encouraging Michel to consider donating. Though she made clear that she wasn't ready to commit to anything, Michel told Rosen she wanted to talk with Pawlak. Rosen introduced the two over Facebook, and they began to talk almost daily.

"It was indescribable," Pawlak said of finally finding a potential donor and talking to her for the first time. "I tried not to get my hopes up, but when we started talking, I felt something special."

Tentative at first, as Michel continued to talk to Pawlak, she, too, felt a special connection. Michel said she "took it a step at a time," first taking a blood test to find out if she was a definitive match, and then visiting the hospital in Baltimore, where the procedure would take place, for more tests.

With each step toward the transplant, Michel said she "checked in" with herself. The doctors stressed to her that she could always back out if she felt she wanted or needed to, a fact Michel found "freeing."

David McFarland
Stevette Wano Rosen (left) and Tammy Pawlak pose for a selfie. Rosen's Facebook plea for a liver donor for Pawlak led CU professor Mel Michel to donate part of hers to Pawlak.

Michel told only a few people about her decision to donate ahead of time. Asked why she chose to do this, Michel said, "This is what I can do. Some people are firefighters, or doctors, or nurses. I'm not any of those things, but this was something that I could do."

Michel, a teacher and practitioner of yoga, believes strongly in spreading goodness in the world. "It's about finding what you can do," she said. "And when you let go and trust yourself and the world and people around you, you realize you can actually do a lot."

On June 6, the day of the operation, both women were nervous.

"I was doing yoga poses on the gurney," Michel said – an effort to calm herself down and inject a little humor into the situation. "I want my abs back after this," she remembers saying.

Before and after the procedure, Pawlak, by her account, was in a state of disbelief.

"To this day I can't believe it," Pawlak said. "I really do have trouble believing it sometimes, that someone would do this for me. I have to ask myself, 'Did this really happen?'"

"Mel saved my life," she added.

After the successful transplant and a few follow-ups, Michel and Pawlak are doing well, though both say the recovery process is "a little up and down," as Michel put it. They both have names for their surgery scars, too: Michel calls hers her "shark bite," while Pawlak calls her scar her "horseshoe tattoo."

Reflecting on the university that brought Michel, Pawlak and Rosen into each other's lives, each woman was mystified of – and grateful for – their shared Clarion connection.

"Both the town and the university were such close-knit, special communities when I was a student," Pawlak said. As a student or alumnus, she said, "you're never just a number." adding that she felt Michel and Rosen "took that (spirit) with them."

"We're a family," Rosen said. "We may come from a small campus in a small town, but that creates a big connection."

As Michel and Pawlak recover and look toward the future, Pawlak says they are planning a reunion at this year's Autumn Leaf Festival.

"I recently turned 50, so we'll get to celebrate my birthday, the season, and life," Pawlak said.

Last Updated 10/10/17