Nilam Patel helps team safely match donors with recipients in time to save lives.
Nilam and her colleagues in Gift of Life Michigan’s Laboratory are medical matchmakers in the intricate organ donation process that transpires over a series of days and ends with lives saved.
As the laboratory manager, she helps oversee technicians who work around the clock to safely match organ donors with the right recipients to make the miracle of transplantation happen.
“Knowing that someone’s entire life trajectory could be altered by our work makes this job special,” Nilam said. “Seeing the donation process unfold because of the dedication, expertise, and cooperation of so many people makes my job extra special.”
She joined the lab’s staff 11 years ago and describes her hiring experience as awe-inspiring.
“After staying home full-time with my kids for a few years, I made the decision to return to the workforce and, that very weekend, there was a tiny little square advertising for a ‘Medical Laboratory Scientist with immunology experience’ in the Sunday Detroit Free Press.”
Nilam sent her resume to Gift of Life. She was hired by then-Laboratory Director Dr. J.C. Rosenberg – one of the five physicians who, 50 years ago, founded the organization that would eventually become Gift of Life Michigan.
“I was simply blown away by the lab, with massive windows and the fun and welcoming lab techs,” Nilam said. “I remember feeling like many visitors do when they walk in to learn about the incredible work that takes place here.
“My story about Gift of Life is about how much this work and this job mean to me and how I felt from the moment I discovered such work even existed.”
That work — matching donors with the right recipients — is crucial to reducing the likelihood that the organ will be rejected by the recipient’s body. Organs are matched by their size, genetic makeup, and by the potential recipient’s status on the waiting list.
“We receive blood from each potential donor to determine if the donor is healthy enough to donate and to determine which HLA antigens are carried on the cells,” she said.
In 2021, Nilam and her colleagues conducted 1,700 crossmatches for potential recipients, allowing a record 429 donors in Michigan to give their final gifts.
Laboratory Director Walter Herczyk said Nilam’s contribution to what the lab accomplishes is enormous.
“Nilam is reliable and highly skilled,” Walter said. “Beyond that, her compassion and love for the laboratory, the organization, and people is what makes her an exemplary leader. She listens, reads the situation, then knows exactly what to do to help.”
Composure is also a strength.
Nilam volunteers every year to read the names of organ, tissue and eye donors at Gift of Life and Eversight’s annual donor memorial ceremony, attended by hundreds of grieving family members. It takes a special presence of mind to do what she does.
“If that was me, I wouldn’t be able to hold back my tears,” Walter said. “But Nilam is calm and relaxed and never falters as she says the names of our heroes.”
Nilam also is involved with Better Together, the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion committee. She also co-leads the Community Service Work Group and works with Human Resources to help with employee onboarding.
But her day always begins and ends with the team of more than 20 people making the matches to save lives.
“The brain power that resides in this lab is astonishing, and I am humbled to be a part of this team,” Nilam said. “They are my mentors, coworkers, and friends, and my colleagues across the organization carry the same commitment, dedication, and compassion.”