The hockey goalie voice inside Mike Schiller told him to be prepared, to find out more, brace for the shot unexpected. It was a holiday weekend, Thanksgiving 2012, and the caller from the Lahey Clinic insisted that his dad return there immediately, with a bag packed, just in case.
The only thing father and son knew in the moment was that Craig Schiller’s white blood count was “off the charts.’’ Something, something potentially far more troubling, was going on other than the strep throat the medical staff in Burlington ruled out when Schiller visited an hour or two earlier in the day.
“So, I Googled it,’’ recalled Mike Schiller, unaware then that the save of his life, and his father’s life, was coursing through his veins. “And it kept coming up that either my dad had a bad infection, or he had leukemia. But somehow, in the back of my head, I just knew . . . ’’
Within a few hours of his return to the hospital that day, Nov. 24, 2012, Craig Schiller, then age 56, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML), and soon learned his hope of survival would rest in a stem cell transplant. Some 90 days later, doctors finally discovered his best match, his near-genetic twin, was son Mike, the 17-year-old kid wearing blocker and glove on the Arlington High School hockey team.
Mike Schiller, student-athlete, goalie and golfer, and sometimes Googling medical sleuth, turned out to have exactly the right stuff. On April 4 of last year, he skipped a day of classes, checked into Mass. General to have some four million stem cells harvested from his blood, and promptly made his way home to Arlington as soon as doctors transfused his father with all those healthy, life-saving, high schooler’s cells.
Saturday night, Mike Schiller was back in goal for the Spy Ponders, standing guard in a 6-3 win over St. John’s of Shrewsbury in the quarterfinals of the Division 1 North tournament. Craig Schiller was there, too, in the stands at the Chelmsford Forum, feeling strong, healthy, relieved, and renewed. Soon to turn 58, the longtime mechanical engineer will start a new full-time job Monday, as proud of his son as he always has been, yet somehow better able to express that to him in recent months.
“At one point, I sent him a text,’’ recalled the elder Schiller, thinking back to when Mike required a shot a day for nearly a week to gin up his own stem cell count ahead of the procedure. “I wrote, ‘You know, we don’t get a lot of time to talk seriously . . . but just know that I love you and that I’m proud of you.’ ’’
Craig Schiller hit “send.” And he waited. He waited a little longer.
No return text. OMG.
“Nothing,’’ he said. “I wondered if he didn’t know how to react, or . . . ’’
Turned out, Mike was driving. He needed to shut off the car.
“Finally, he wrote back, ‘17 years ago you gave me life,’ ’’ recited Craig Schiller as he sat with a Globe reporter last week, ‘ “I think it’s only fair that I return the favor.’ That’s my son . . . that’s a while ago now, and I still tear up.’’
Maturity beyond his years
Mike Schiller probably is finished with competitive hockey upon the conclusion of Arlington High’s season. He figures he’ll major in computer science and already has been accepted at UMass in Lowell and Amherst. He’s waiting to find out if Northeastern will make his choice more difficult.
Prior to Saturday night’s game, Schiller was in a job share with fellow goalie Ryan Cote, and Wednesday night turned in a spectacular performance against heavily favored St. John’s Prep to preserve a 1-0 victory. The Prep pelted Schiller in the third period, heaving up more than 20 shots in an offensive feeding frenzy. But the 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound netminder handled each one flawlessly, his size and unflappable demeanor at times reminiscent of another towering goalie who also once wore No. 29, the legendary Ken Dryden, ex- of Cornell and a Canadian-based NHL squad of moderate success.
Last season, amid his father’s illness, Schiller played but one period for Arlington. For the most part, that was because he was slotted behind Luke Tremblay and John Lepore, both of whom graduated, Tremblay to Hebron Academy and Lepore to military service.
“If they’re shooting at John now,’’ mused Arlington coach John Messuri, “I hope they’re all getting by him.’’
Messuri, a Spy Ponder alum who went on to play at Princeton, lauded Schiller for his performance this season, but equally for his steady, mature demeanor last season during his father’s illness.
“Very mature kid,’’ said Messuri. “Conversations with Mike are on an adult-to-adult level, far more than your typical coach-high school athlete level. Last year, he just kept at it. We’d ask him how he was doing, and only once did he well up a little bit . . . and even then he pulled himself right back together. A really, really impressive young man.’’
Which, postgame on Wednesday, had Messuri telling a reporter that Schiller “has gone through much bigger things already in his life’’ than turning away 20-something shots in a frantic third period.
Neither father nor son figured early in Craig’s medical odyssey that it would be Mike’s blood that proved the life-saving prescription. Doctors first tested the senior Schiller’s two siblings, but neither proved a solid match. The National Marrow Donor Program (www.bethematch.org), with some 20 million potential donors, provided some very strong candidates, but none so close in DNA that doctors at Mass. General felt encouraged to move ahead with the procedure.
According to Craig Schiller, his doctor told him from the outset that 15 percent of stem cell recipients with his form of leukemia don’t survive beyond the first year of the transplant.
Some three months post-diagnosis, Schiller’s doctors, Mike recalled, suggested somewhat reluctantly that he be tested for a match. He said they advised him that a son’s or daughter’s DNA isn’t often a match, and even if it is, the parent-child relationship can introduce issues that transcend biology.
“Actually, his doctor didn’t want me to be the donor,’’ recalled Mike. “It was because she thought if he ended up dying from the transplant, then I’d feel responsible. That seemed a little bit ridiculous to me. I mean, OK, what if he dies and I was a match and didn’t try? So, I just blew that off. If no one else is a 10-out-of-10 match, why wouldn’t I do it? My dad told me, too, but I said, ‘Look, stop, you don’t need to tell me this, OK?’
“Obviously, if I did it and he died, I’d feel sad, but at least I’d know that I tried.’’
The test for a match is a simple swab, a Q-tip-like collection of saliva from inside the prospective donor’s mouth. When the day came, Mike recalled, it was 6:30 a.m., a school day, and he administered it himself at the family’s home in the Turkey Hill section of Arlington.
He remembers thinking, “It’s so early . . . why am I even doing this? . . . it’s such a small chance that I’m a match, anyway.’’
He also dropped the swab on the floor.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure we had him do it again,’’ recalled Craig Schiller. “Otherwise, uh, it comes back that I’m a DNA match to, what, our living room rug?’’
Roughly a week later, Mike recalled, he came home after school to the good news. His father, already some 30-40 pounds lighter because of chemotherapy treatments, gave him the word. In the world of genetic matchmaking, father and son were nearly a perfect couple.
“His smile was ear to ear — I’ll never forget that,’’ said Mike. “That was an interesting moment, for sure. He didn’t have to read [the test result] to me. He just had the biggest, widest smile you could ever imagine.’’
It all came together quickly from there, although, in part because Mike was only 17, he said, documentation of his informed consent took a few days to process. After all the paperwork was settled, he eventually underwent five days of shots, one shot per day, injected with medicine that stimulated stem cell growth and flushed it from his marrow into his bloodstream. Essentially, his blood supply was ripened for harvest.
“The side effects of the shots were brutal,’’ he said. “My bones throbbed. My spine ached all day. It was tough. But I knew what the reward was.’’
On the day of the procedure at MGH, his father already admitted approximately a week before, Mike was hooked to an intravenous line around 8 a.m. His blood was passed through what he described as a centrifuge, the process somewhat akin to what dialysis patients experience, but in his case the stem cells were extracted and the remainder of his blood returned directly to his body. His bones or bone marrow never were directly accessed during the seven-hour procedure.
“One arm had a large IV needle, so that made that arm immobile,’’ Mike said. “I could read, talk on the phone. I brought my iPad with me, but no WiFi at the hospital, so no Netflix. That was too bad.’’
Once harvested, it took only some 30 minutes for the cells to be fed into Craig Schiller’s bloodstream, and to take residence in his bone marrow, beginning his journey back to good health. Nearly 11 months later, he is still smiling, his weight nearly all restored, his energy back to normal. It was a sore throat and a feeling of utter fatigue that sent him to Lahey Clinic that first day, thinking maybe a round of antibiotics would get him back to snuff.
“You learn not to use words like ‘guarantee’ or ‘cure’ when you’re in situations like this,’’ said the senior Schiller, when asked his prognosis. But it’s ‘unlikely’ the leukemia will come back.’’
Father and son say they can’t help but feel somewhat transformed by what happened. Craig, eager to get back to work with a new employer, TeraDiode in Wilmington, knows he’ll be more patient and diplomatic with coworkers. In his sickest moments, the chemotherapy tearing him down, he wondered if he would survive.
The impact on Mike wasn’t as strong, but he says it has sharpened his focus.
“I look at it now that we’re not guaranteed 100 years on this planet,’’ said the 18-year-old Arlington High goalie. “Within a moment, things can change. So, for me, I guess I just appreciate being young, being strong enough to do something strenuous like hockey, other sports. You know, just be aware, take it all in . . . the close of my high school career, college in the future . . . and maybe be aware more not to spend time on the sidelines and just jump into things when you can.
“Because you just never know.’’