SALEM — Joe Michallyszyn has been obsessed with aviation since he was 12 years old, watching planes take off and land from Beverly Municipal Airport in the years following World War II.
For more than 40 years, Michallyszyn flew his 1969 Cessna 150k out of Beverly Airport, at one point becoming the airport's oldest pilot. When the 83-year-old Salem police captain decided last year to stop flying, he donated his plane to Matching Donors, a Canton-based kidney donation support network.
"I got a sign from God. That was it," Michallyszyn said. "And I'm in good health and everything, a current pilot. I didn't think much of it, kept flying. A month later, I got the same message, and I said... 'Oh. Maybe it's time.'"
The charity often accepts property donations and resells them to raise money to help those in need of an organ transplant. In this case, Michallyszyn's donation could help another Salem resident — Erik Nowak, the son of one of Michallyszyn's longtime friends.
"It's mind-boggling, this whole thing with Joe," Nowak said. "Joe knew my dad (George Nowak) — my dad was a city councilor in Salem for 20-something years, was a police officer in Danvers, and like all the old-timers, they know all the people."
Hanging up the hobby
Michallyszyn's affinity for flying came from an uncle "who was into aviation," he said. "That was his life." He was in his 30s when he signed up for flying lessons and earned his license in 1973, at age 36.
Having grown up on the North Shore, Michallyszyn said the region looks different from above.
"When you're 1,000 or 2,000 feet up and never been in an aircraft before, it's hard to pick out where you are, or what it was you were looking at on the ground. You have to become accustomed and learn (the area) all over again," Michallyszyn said. "Anytime you got lost and were flying over land, if you didn't know where you were, all you had to do was fly east because you'd hit the water. You're going to come up to the ocean and pick (landmarks) out from there."
As time went on, Michallyszyn went from being the youngest pilot around to the oldest. He retired from flying last year.
"I hated to give up flying, but I gave it up," Michallyszyn said. "I said, 'how am I going to sell the plane?' So I had a couple people look at it, and for one reason or another, they didn't buy it."
That's when he noticed an ad about tax-deductible donations in the back of a copy of The Salem News.
"It said, 'donate your car, boat, lawnmower, anything... airplane,'" Michallyszyn said. "And I said, 'airplane! Well I'll be a son of a gun, to a kidney foundation.'"
Each day, 22 people in the United States die while waiting for a kidney transplant. Most wait seven to nine years on the government's deceased organ donor list. Matching Donors tries to make the process move faster by running a network that donors and recipients can find each other on, according to Paul Dooley, its CEO and founder.
The organization also provides support for recipients and donors — covering costs like lodging, food, and rides to the hospital.
"We can help them with grants, help them with everything," Dooley said. "The average time from when someone gets on our site and gets a transplant is less than six months."
'The caring part of things'
Among those on the list for a kidney is Erik Nowak, 50, superintendent of maintenance at the South Essex Sewerage District. He was a Merchant Marine for 27 years before an unexpected diagnosis of IgA Nephropathy sidelined him two years ago, he explained.
"I reached out to Paul — I know Paul through my brother-in-law," Nowak said. "He said, 'you should give Paul a call,' so I did... and they've been amazing."
Though Nowak is still looking for a donor, he said the organization has provided support in other ways in the meantime.
"Sometimes, having another voice to talk to and understanding... Matching Donors has been that," Nowak said. "The light they're bringing to my whole problem is just making me understand stuff — and that's above and beyond what they're set up to do. It's the caring part of things, the human side."
Nowak admitted not remembering much of Michallyszyn, and Michallyszyn of Nowak. But Michallyszyn became emphatically excited at the mention of Nowak's father, George. The memories for Erik Nowak are fond as well.
"As a kid, I was always in my dad's car, and he'd introduce me to people that'd stop him along the way," Nowak said. "One of my doctors, I was talking to him and he asked, 'how're you dealing with all this?' And I said, 'Doc, I've gotta tell ya, it's mindblowing.'"
Anyone interested in possibly donating to Erik Nowak or learning more about the process and matching with another recipient can go to MatchingDonors.com to register, or call 781-821-2204.