DETROIT – Ten years after receiving a new heart, Tommy Schomaker was supposed to be heading off to college.
Instead, he is once again fighting for his life.
It was just in June that we brought you the happy news that Schomaker had graduated from high school -- with his heart donor’s mother in the audience to cheer him on. It was a milestone many feared he would never celebrate.
Schomaker was preparing for his freshman year at Michigan State University when he developed some concerning symptoms.
Tests ultimately revealed it was cancer. It’s called Burkitt’s PTLD. It’s a rare and aggressive type of cancer that occurs in the immune cells and can develop in people who are taking medicines to lower their immune system in order to prevent rejection after an organ transplant.
The diagnosis shocked Schomaker, his family, friends and everyone who has followed his incredible journey.
Instead of starting his college life, Schomaker began a new battle save his life.
He has spent the past four months in and out of U of M’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, enduring brutal treatments. But through it all, there was one commitment he was determined to keep.
Long before his cancer diagnosis, Schomaker had accepted an invitation to speak at the University of Michigan’s Vita Redita, an annual fundraiser for the transplant center that helped save his life.
He refused to miss the opportunity to share his story with the people that make transplants like his possible.
Schomaker took to the podium to rousing applause and was quick to answer the question at hand.
“Before we get started, I should probably also clear up any confusion for my bald head,” said Schomaker. “This is Vita Redita and you’re all in the right place, and I am the heart kid scheduled to speak tonight. But as of July, I added cancer to my already extensive medical resume, but I’m looking forward to adding cancer survivor very soon.”
He told the story of his heart transplant and the other medical challenges he has faced.
“I’ve enjoyed an eight year run where I was relatively healthy and loving life. And then, two months ago, I began my cancer journey. Today, I’m again fighting for my life with a genuinely thankful and optimistic outlook,” said Schomaker.
He urged the medical professionals in audience to stay the course.
“When the outcomes are uncertain, don’t let failure or doubt derail your focus. My life is living proof of just how much your work matters,” said Schomaker.
The central focus of his moving speech -- truth.
“The truth is, my life has been awesome. What others can see as an overwhelmingly difficult road, I can tell you, it’s been worth every moment,” said Schomaker. “It’s very important to me that you all know that I haven’t wasted any time with the gift that you’ve given me. I love life, it’s precious to me, and I will never take it for granted.”
It’s a life built firmly on his faith.
“God has not promised smooth sailing, but what he does promise is safe arrival with eternal purpose. This is my life and these are my miracles, and at the enter of all of it is truth,” said Schomaker.
Supporting him in the audience, as always, were Schomaker’s proud parents.
“He lives so in the moment and is so positive and his faith is so strong. It’s inspiring,” said Mike Schomaker. “I don’t think there was a more gratifying moment in our journey than that one tonight.”
“It’s been difficult for us to wrap our minds around and accept, but we have so much support and love around us and so many prayers that we are just literally doing one day at a time,” said Colleen Schomaker.
After his speech, Tommy Schomaker said, he never thought about canceling.
“I had to be here. I couldn’t say no,” said Schomaker. “Just to be able to show them that there’s still hope, and they should always have hope because I’m not supposed to be here, but here I am. God’s got a plan for everybody, so you really don’t know how it’s gonna work out. You just gotta stay hopeful.”
As for his health, he’s fighting on.
“Side effects are kicking in and everything, but overall I think I’m doing pretty good, I would have to say. I just had to take a break from school for a while, but besides that, I’m doing good. I’ll be back soon to full health, full health,” said Schomaker.
He is grateful for the outpouring of support.
“Thank you so much for the prayers. I really appreciate it. I’m fighting on because of people like you out there praying for me and just making me know that I’ve got a community behind me just helping me out and lifting me up. Thank you so much and please continue the prayers.”
As the event drew to a close, the Michigan Marching Band had a special surprise for their Spartan guest of honor. To Schomaker’s delight, they played the Michigan State Fight Song.
You can listen to Schomaker’s full speech at the Vita Redita gala here.
Schomaker just finished his fifth round of chemotherapy. He has also needed multiple transfusions of blood and platelets which is very common for people battling cancer.
If you want to help patients like Schomaker, U of M is hosting its annual “Big A Hero At The Big House” event this Sunday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can donate blood, join the organ donor registry and the bone marrow registry. For details, click here.
Local 4 has been following Tommy’s story for the past 14 years. To see his journey from the very beginning, click here.