Rowan Engineering helps others while helping one of its own

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Rowan Engineering students will host fundraisers starting Oct. 1 for the Histiocytosis Association, supporting one of their own, 2009 alumnus Eric Majusiak, who has hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis.

They joke, some of the 800 plus students in Rowan University’s College of Engineering, about getting their meals from vending machines strategically placed on Rowan Hall’s three main floors. Their programs — in chemical engineering, civil and environmental engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and mechanical engineering — are competitive, competitive to get into and challenging every day of their higher ed careers. They spend a lot of time together, in classrooms, in labs, offsite on collaborative projects with area businesses and organizations. They become family.

That bond doesn’t end with commencement, the toss of a tassel and a diploma hung on a wall.

Case in point: Eric Majusiak.

Majusiak, 28, graduated from Rowan in 2009 with a degree in civil and environmental engineering. He works as a hydraulic engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Philadelphia District. Eric deployed last summer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Emergency Operations Team to Joplin, Mo., to aid in the cleanup following a tornado that leveled the town. In August 2012, he deployed with the Emergency Operations Team to Trenton and then drove 27 hours during the hurricane to Albany, N.Y., to assist before and after Hurricane Irene.

Battle of his life

He almost didn’t make it home in time to wed fellow Rowan alum Amanda Schemelia on Sept. 10, 2011, but he did, married to the girl he attended Highland High School and St. Agnes Church with by the mayor of their town in their own South Harrison Township backyard. Young, smart, educated, good-looking, the couple had everything going for them. That was until January.

A little more than four months after their wedding, Majusiak fell gravely ill and was moved from a local hospital to Temple University Hospital, where he was in respiratory distress, placed on a machine to filter his blood— a job his body could not do — and placed on a ventilator and sedated because of lung complications.

"Just before I got sick I said life couldn’t get any better than this,” Eric said. “A week later I woke up in the hospital.”

In March, he was diagnosed with hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), a rare and potentially fatal blood disorder in which the immune system overreacts and attacks rapidly dividing cells, such as red blood cells. He also has Still’s disease, which doctors believe caused his HLH, and which is form of arthritis, according to Eric and Amanda. Eric’s in pain much of the time, and he grapples with diminished mobility from his fingers to his shoulders, his knees to his back.

“It’s your immune system killing your body,” Eric said. “A ‘normal’ average day is difficult. I can’t write with a pen. You learn how to pick stuff up differently, walk differently, write differently. You can’t do too much or you stiffen up,” said the man who had thrived on the outdoors, kayaking, fishing, and splitting wood by hand.

Ups and downs

Since he fell ill, life has been a health care tilt-a-whirl in which Eric has been medically paralyzed, endured muscle atrophy, watched his 6’1” frame go from 190 to 160 pounds while in the hospital and than to 242 pounds in two months on medications, suffered neuropathy, struggled through chemotherapy. The couple’s life has been a roller coaster in other ways, with Eric blazing though 14 days of his own sick time and tapping into several hundred hours of leave donated by colleagues, with bills mounting and household mishaps popping up — a broken washer, leaky pipes, a rotted kitchen floor and black mold among them — and just adding to their situation.

But then, well then, there’s the good stuff.  A wife who worked and spent from noon to 8 p.m. at his hospital bedside for virtually 99 days and who he said “saved my life.” Supportive family and friends. Prayers. Some health improvements. And that family at the Rowan College of Engineering.

Students in Rowan’s chapters of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), Society of Women Engineers (SWE), American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and Tau Beta Pi National Engineering Honor Society have combined forces to help raised money for the Histiocytosis Association located in Pitman and to raise awareness of the illness.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 1 to 4, Rowan Engineering students will host fundraisers in Rowan Hall (and in the Geography Department in Robinson, from which Amada earned her degree) just off Bowe Boulevard in Glassboro — think sales of sandwiches, cakes, soft pretzels and a few healthy things, too, according to co-coordinator Jaclyn Navara. She noted the clubs also will sell wristbands and other items.

From 1:45 to 3 p.m. on Oct. 5, the students will host a presentation in Rowan Hall Room 304 on Eric’s illness by Eric and Rowan medical personnel. Their goal is to help battle the condition and educate people at the same time.

On Oct. 1 and 2, the Landmark Americana on Rt. 322 will give 25 percent of every bill to the cause when diners present a special flyer that can be found on Eric’s website — which also has Eric’s blog — at www.EricsJourney.org/Rowan2012.

Taking the lead

Spearheading the efforts have been:

Sarah Bauer, 22, a senior civil and environmental engineering major from Woolwich Township, president of SWE

Sarah Gettings, 21, a senior chemical engineering major from Runnemede, president of EWB

Andrew MacLane, 21, a senior civil and environmental engineering major from Middletown, Monmouth County, president of ASCE

Jaclyn Navara, 22, a senior mechanical engineering major from Old Bridge, Middlesex County, president of Tau Beta Pi National Engineering Honor Society.

Additionally, Gettings’ uncle Tim Gettings, Mays Landing, a contractor for MTG Construction, volunteered to fix the Majusiaks’ kitchen floor.

Educating others

Sarah Gettings said that the educational event is important. “If doctors had known more about this illness, it would have been easier to diagnose,” she said. “Every little thing we can put forward can help. We’re saving lives by raising awareness.”

MacLane added, “Eric is an alum of the College of Engineering. It’s an important thing to help out an alum any way possible.”

Meanwhile Eric — who had glued together his own cuts in the past and given himself stitches — stays determined, though he goes through three of those plastic pill holders, the Sunday through Saturday kind, three times a day, with Amanda filling one for the morning, one for the afternoon and one for the night. His blood work is looking good but the arthritis that is part of the fallout from his condition is cyclical and periodically debilitating. Once doctors gave him a five percent chance of survival. While he doesn’t know what the future holds, if he gets through two years without a relapse, he will be considered a long-term survivor, he said.

“I’m good. I’m happy,” he added.

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