Michelle Heleba has been with the Red Cross for a long time. In her position as regional donor services executive she lives and works the mission. Her job is to make sure there is enough blood collected every day to meet the needs of hospitals throughout the Red Cross Northern New England Region – comprised of Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine – as well as across the country. She understands that lives depend on making sure blood is available whenever and wherever it is needed. But when Michelle found one of her own family members in need of lifesaving blood everything changed. In an instant, the situation became very personal.
Michelle’s mother, Gloria-Jean Merrow, was a native Vermonter – smart, industrious and very independent. Upon graduating from Rutland School of Business she embarked on a professional path that included positions with the Rutland Herald Newspaper, Banker’s Life Insurance and 35 years with The Orvis Company. Gloria-Jean loved every minute of her career. So, when Michelle noticed fatigue in her mother beyond normal end-of-the-day tiredness, she encouraged her mom to talk with her primary care doctor.
Gloria-Jean had already been preparing for vascular surgery, but when her doctor did a standard pre-op blood test the results came back showing severe anemia. And although she was not showing any of the typical outward signs of anemia, her blood levels were so low that she was immediately admitted to Rutland Regional Medical Center for observation. It was there Gloria-Jean and her family learned she had Stage 4 gallbladder cancer. She needed blood to counteract the symptoms of severe anemia and give her more precious time.
As these events were unfolding for Gloria-Jean and her family, the Red Cross was facing a national blood crisis – its worst blood shortage in over a decade. Michelle was managing the challenges of the shortage every day in her work. Over the course of her mother’s treatment, Gloria-Jean received more than four units of lifesaving blood but, at times, the supply was so scarce she was given just a half-pint of blood. There simply wasn’t any more to give.
“These past months have been a very humbling experience both personally and professionally,” said Michelle. “Working for the Red Cross I understand that blood is the gift of life, but for our family it became the gift of time. We knew my mother was not going to survive but blood donations gave my family, my sister and my mother’s grandchildren, time to say goodbye.”
On April 2, 2022, Gloria-Jean passed away in her own home, independent to the very end.
“In my job, every day is a challenge to ensure there is enough blood available to help all patients in need,” Michelle said. “There is no other source of blood than a healthy, volunteer donor and right now only three percent of our country’s population donates. I want blood donors reading this to know those final days and hours with my mother were precious to me and my family. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
For more information on becoming a blood donor or to find a Red Cross donation center near you, call 1-800-RED-CROSS or visit: redcrossblood.org.