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Fingerless bridal couturier gives hope to burn victims

by: DAVID F. ASHTON - Clackamas-based bridal couturier, and Tres Fabu owner, Jan Schumacher - the keynote speaker at the Donate Life Northwest Lifesaver Breakfast - still runs a home business providing bridal gowns, as she once did in her store at Bybee and Milwaukie in Westmoreland. Coming back home from Spain to her Mount Scott home in 2008, after meeting with designers of bridal gowns, Jan Schumacher – then the owner of Tres Fabu Bridal Shop – didn’t feel well.

Brides who had shopped at her store became concerned at her subsequent absences, which led to THE BEE investigating the situation, and reporting the unfortunate turns in Schumacher’s life in our April, 2009, issue. She had suffered severe injury to her hands in a manner still unclear to the medical profession.

Her store, which long graced the northeast corner of S.E. Milwaukie Avenue and Bybee Boulevard, and had served more than 10,000 brides by her estimate, slowly emptied over the months, while Schumacher dealt with the mysterious life-threatening illness. The shop eventually closed, and the space is now occupied by ZoomCare.

However, Schumacher has not retired to the shadows. As she prepared to give the keynote address at the Donate Life Northwest “Lifesaver Breakfast” on November 6 in the living room of her Clackamas home, Schumacher recounted her experiences.

“To me it’s kind of crazy, kind of like a crazy dream,” Schumacher began. “As frightening and painful as it was, it put me on a new and happy trajectory in my life.”

Even now, neither she nor her doctors can name the illness that that nearly took her life in 2008, leaving her body scarred – and without fingers on her hands.

“I am undiagnosed; my blood showed no bacterium and no virus. I was becoming more and more seriously ill by a ‘mysterious something’ that had taken over my body. The Center for Disease Control has cataloged only ten patients who have had this affliction, and survived.”

When first admitted to the hospital, Schumacher said experts tried without success to understand the illness. “It started becoming critical, one night, when I started bleeding internally, from my small arteries, If it had progressed to my major arteries, my organs would have shut down.

“At one point it became critical; they called my family to come say goodbye,” Schumacher reflected. “I ‘journeyed into the light’; feeling myself becoming one with – part of – light. “I met there with family and friends who had passed away before me. My husband was sitting at my bedside, in the ICU, watching me converse with these people, and at the same time, saying his own goodbyes.”

A “massive dose” of steroids given at that time was credited with saving her life – helping her blood again staywithin her arteries. “But, it also kept blood flow from my extremities – like my fingers, and the tip of my nose.”

Schumacher held up her hands, showing finger stubs on one hand, and the other hand with a thumb, but no digits. “I spent six months at the Oregon Burn Center, and had 25 surgeries in 24 weeks.”

What helped her begin to heal was donated tissue. “They call it a biological bandage; these strips covered up to 35% of my body. When you think about it, this amounts to one very large and deep wound.”

Doctors replaced the sections of donated tissue until her she was well enough to become her own donor, Schumacher explained. “My hands would not take the grafted tissue, so at various times my hands were sewn into my abdomen until they formed their own blood supply.”

“When THE BEE visited my store in 2009, I’d just had one of my hands freed from my abdomen,” she recalled. “I soon recognized that all of this was just going to be too much for me. With ten more surgeries coming, I could see I was not able to fulfill the requirements of the job.

With help of her family and friends, the remaining inventory of the 7,000 sq. ft. store was moved to her Clackamas home.

“All I can say is ‘God bless brides’. I’ve had a good name in the community, and many families remembered me. These brides got me out of bed on days when I otherwise just would not have gotten up for any other reason.”

Now, she operates Tres Fabu in her home, doing a limited business by appointment. “I love being with ‘my’ brides, giving them the bridal gown of their dreams, and a phenomenal deal at the same time.”

Finds joy in service to others

“But, what really makes me happy is the whole new trajectory my life has taken – helping others,” Schumacher beamed.

As a member of the Amputee Coalition of America, Schumacher is a peer-to-peer counselor. “I talk with, and give support to, amputees all over the country.”

She has also a volunteered at the Oregon Burn Center; and, through them, has become involved with a burn-survivors group called the Phoenix Society. “I’ve thousands of people with whom I’ve shared stories. I let them know that there is life, after a near-death experience.”

Additionally, Schumacher supports another Portland-based organization, Community Tissue Services. “I am so blessed to have received my donated tissue – and to think that 75% of Oregonians are donors – it was the donated tissue that kept me alive until I could become my own donor.”

Schumacher said she’s “test-riding” a computerized partial hand prosthesis – and is the first woman in the world to do so. I am thrilled with the opportunity to help move this research forward.”

About the message she delivered in her Donate Life Northwest speech, her thoughts were clear:

“Regardless of the trauma, when a person comes upon ‘a ninety-degree fork in the road’ – this experience can really take you to the ‘core of your being’, as you question and decide the importance of things in life.

“After such a tragic experience, you really question if you’ll have ‘purpose’ again – and that’s what I’ve discovered is most precious to me – to be purposeful to others.”

Anyone can easily live a purposeful life – even in death, Schumacher reminded – by registering to become a tissue donor.

“I can assure you, in my glimpse into heaven, there is just nothing about this vessel – our bodies – that is required in the next life. Think about it. If you can save five or fifty lives with your body by donating it, would that not be a marvelous thing to leave behind you, as you journey forward into the light?” As for Jan’s keynote address for Donate Life Northwest, the organization reports that it was “amazing, and she helped Donate Life Northwest raise over $125,000 for our programs”.

To learn more about Donate Life Northwest – they handle donor registration in Oregon – go online to their website: www.donatelifenw.org