Bone marrow courier on day 77 of non-stop travel around the globe to save lives
'I volunteered for this because nobody wants to fly,' Mishel Zrian says
While most of us can't imagine spending days on airplanes — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic — Mishel Zrian has been travelling non-stop for more than two months, delivering life-saving bone marrow across the globe.
Since the pandemic halted air travel, Zrian's travel has only increased. The 47-year-old from Israel is a volunteer bone marrow courier. He was hired by Royal Intl. to work for Ezer Mizion, the world's largest Jewish bone marrow donor registry.
He often sleeps in empty airports and nearby hotels and has more than once gone 24 hours without food. But to him, it's worth it to "save lives."
"I've sat in 65 flights and saved 21 patients," he told As It Happens host Carol Off. "Those people would die. Now in the [coronavirus] time, there's no flights and it's very difficult to move this bone marrow and that's the reason the government of Israel allowed me to do that and keep me in a room in the airport … If I don't do that, people will die."
Finding the right match for bone marrow transplants is difficult at the best of times and often requires international donor matches. Timing is critical, because when a patient's bone marrow is removed, a transplant must be provided within 72 hours or the patient could die. Zrian must carefully watch over the cargo -- which needs close temperature monitoring.
According to the World Marrow Donor Association, as reported by the Associated Press, donor registries and transplant centres around the world have been grappling with how to navigate under pandemic restrictions.
'All my life is in a small sport bag'
In fact, that's what keeps Zrain on the job.
"I volunteered for this because nobody wants to fly in the corona time [sic]. When it started everyone was so scared about this and I volunteered for this."
While saving lives gives him the strength to keep going, travel in the time of COVID-19 is far from easy. Food, sleep and spare clothing are scarce as he races around the world while navigating all the restrictions.
"All my life is in a small sport bag," he said, adding that he cleans his jeans, which have been with him for 77 days now, in the sinks and bathtubs of his hotel rooms with shampoo.
There was one week where he slept on an airplane every night. It wasn't until he landed in Denver, CO. last week that he even took time to register how many days had gone by since he slept in a bed. He'd been sleeping on airplanes for six nights straight.
"You know I am so tired all the time. Even today when I landed with the bone marrow in the United States, I took a hotel near the airport because I must sleep a little bit because you know my flight is again tonight back to Tel Aviv tonight and I need to rest."
But sleep isn't the only thing hard to come by. There are days when he's not sure when he will get the chance to eat.
"This is the problem, because I think four times I was without food for 24 hours because in the airports everything is closed," he said.
After delivering bone marrow to a Houston TX, hospital one day, he went to a nearby fast food restaurant — only to find out that, due to COVID-19 restrictions, the doors were closed and he was told he had to to make a reservation through an app on his phone.
"But my phone is Israeli and when I tried to download the application, it told me to make a reservation in Tel Aviv," he said. Other times, he relies on the kindness of others. "My story, everybody knows about me. In the airlines … some cabin crew give me snacks to keep me alive because I am so hungry all the time."
Being away from family hardest part
Zrian knows nothing about the patients he's about to help save except their age.
"Sometimes when I see a bag of bone marrow, if it's small, I know it's for a child."
He says sitting on the airplane for 12 hours at a time, days on end, is very difficult but he knows it makes "good things" happen and "that makes me have the power to continue."
But nothing is more difficult than being away from his family.
"It's very, very difficult today," he said. "And when you speak with me about my children I start to cry. This is my problem, I cry all the time. I don't know what's happened to me with the corona time. All the time I cry. I think this is the way to relax my soul…. This is the way I deal with it."
But he speaks to them and reassures them that when this is all over they will be together and enjoy their time "because we have saved lives and this is very important."
"My family knows what I am doing and are proud of me and support me all the time and this makes me more strong."
Written by Alexandra Kazia, with files from The Associated Press. Interview produced by Morgan Passi.