Jerry Schillaci was working on the clinical hours he needed to be certified a paramedic when the organ donation case came up.
Despite having worked at what is now Centegra Hospital – McHenry since he was 16 years old, Schillaci knew basically nothing about organ donations.
Schillaci shadowed the coordinator from the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois, now Gift of Hope, as the kidneys and livers were extracted from the woman, who had suffered a massive stroke, and taken to other hospitals where the transplants would be completed.
“From that point on, after I saw the recovery and I saw all these different transplant centers coming in, recovering the organs, I knew I was taking a total left turn on what I wanted to do,” Schillaci said. “I knew this was my new calling.”
Schillaci had wanted to be a firefighter since he was a little kid, fascinated with the idea of “laying on the sirens and blaring the horns and making messes.”
Once he knew being a firefighter also meant being a paramedic, Schillaci threw himself into health care.
He earned his certified nursing assistant certification while at Johnsburg High School, entered the fire science program at the Lake County High Schools Technology Campus in Grayslake, where he got to do a ride-along with the Gurnee Fire Department, and worked as a patient care technician – first at Northern Illinois Medical Center in McHenry, and a year later at the Canterbury Care Center, now the Springs at Crystal Lake.
Schillaci joined the McHenry Township Fire Protection District in 2000. He still works there as a firefighter and paramedic despite getting a full-time job with Gift of Hope eight years ago.
One of his favorite parts of the job is as an instructor for the Learn Not to Burn program for fourth-graders across McHenry, which he does on top of his scheduled 12-hour shifts.
McHenry’s version is one of the more involved public education programs, Schillaci said.
Kids actually get to call 911 and speak to a dispatcher, try on some of the gear, check out the ambulance and fire engine, learn how to use fire extinguishers and create a floor plan of their home showing the location of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, the primary and secondary exits and their families’ meeting spots.
Schillaci rallied to make sure the program had enough instructors to keep going this year, said Rebecca Rosner, the district’s new public education coordinator, adding that Schillaci makes an impact on the first impression.
“I’ve never, ever seen him in a place where he’s not willing or complaining,” Rosner said.
At Gift of Hope, Schillaci serves as the supervisor of allocation and perfusion, which means he oversees eight people in the department that finds homes for all the organs, said Lisa Hinsdale, Gift of Hope’s manager of allocation and perfusion services and Schillaci’s direct supervisor.
He also cleans, inspects and tests donated kidneys, something that, if done incorrectly, could mean a damaged organ that cannot be used, Hinsdale said, adding that he’s one of a very small number of people in the country that know how to do that and do it well.
That expertise meant Schillaci was even called when he was supposed to be on vacation with his wife, Audra, and their two young boys, Hinsdale said.
The nonprofit was having trouble with new software and needed Schillaci’s help, otherwise the donated organs might have been lost.
But that’s what makes it worth it to Schillaci.
“The thing I love about Gift of Hope is I’m part of something where when I leave, we saved a life, many times saved multiple lives at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe. It’s pretty cool.”