Three donors and a stem cell transplant recipient speak about curing cancer
by Rabbi Yigal Sklarin, 12th Grade Dean, Ramaz Upper School
As the 12th Grade Dean at Ramaz Upper School in New York City, I had the privilege on April 24, 2018 of leading a Gift of Life Marrow Registry Senior Swab presentation to the 11th and 12th grade students to explain the miracle of bone marrow transplants and how they can cure many blood cancers. Transplants are done in two ways, using stem cells collected from the blood stream, or using bone marrow drawn from the hip bone. I explained that I know about transplants from experience because I am a member of Gift of Life’s registry, was found as a match twice, and have been a two-time stem cell donor. Joining the registry is easy – just swab the inside of your cheek and fill out a questionnaire.
I completed my registration in 2001, and was first found as a match for a patient in 2004. It came as a complete surprise when I was called to donate again in 2012. Unfortunately, cancer is a difficult disease to overcome and my two recipients did not survive.
However, my experiences as a donor inspired my brother Eli, who was studying abroad in Israel when he joined Gift of Life. In 2011, he was called as a match, and donated stem cells to Allen White, who has fully recovered from his illness. In May 2015, I invited Eli and Allen to join me in the Ramaz auditorium to tell their stories as a donor and recipient. During that presentation, one of our graduating seniors in the audience also decided to join the registry. He, too, became a donor, and he was the next guest speaker I introduced.
Alex Leibowitz was preparing to begin college at Dartmouth University when he and 55 other Ramaz students swabbed to join the registry, then went on with their lives and thought little more about it. As he was beginning his freshman year of college, Alex received repeated phone calls from an unknown 561 area code. For a while he ignored them, but as more calls came in from the same number, he finally answered one – only to learn that he had been identified as a match for a man suffering from leukemia, and his stem cell donation was needed soon.
Alex he told the students that Gift of Life made him feel like a hero for becoming a donor, and it was so easy to help someone in need. But the real heroes, Alex explained, were the people fighting cancer for their lives, and the people working at Gift of Life to save them. It was they who had inspired him to run his own swabbing drive on campus at Dartmouth, and to speak to a Birthright tour group about the importance of getting swabbed.
Then, Alex introduced a special guest – his recipient, Mark Citron, a 68-year-old neurobiologist from California. Mark recounted his ten-year journey fighting cancer until he finally received his stem cell transplant from Alex. He talked about how hopeful his family felt when they learned a match had been found for him, and how chemotherapy was used to wipe his immune system to make way for Alex’s stem cells which have now given him a new, healthy immune system.
Our final speaker at the event was Gift of Life’s Assistant Director of Community Development, Nick Hudson, who told his own moving story of joining the registry at college, then donating bone marrow to a 5-year-old boy battling leukemia. This child, Cameron, has thrived and formed a lifelong friendship with Nick, and is now an active high school student with his entire life ahead of him.
We projected a photo on the screen showing Alex swabbing his cheek in 2015, to help make it clear that this simple, momentary action can have lifesaving effects in the future. If I had not chosen to swab years ago and learn what it means to be a donor, and then run a drive in our community at Ramaz, and if Alex had not joined the registry, Mark would not be alive today – this chain of small decisions meant a second chance at life for Mark.
By the end of the program, nearly 100 Ramaz students chose to join the marrow registry in the hopes of someday becoming donors, and 300 faculty and students want to become more involved with Gift of Life’s mission to save lives.
Thank you to our speakers Alex, Mark, and Nick, as well as Gift of Life’s Senior Swab program, which offers education for high school juniors and seniors about the importance of joining the registry, and offers them the chance to run their own donor recruitment drive on campus or in the community. Visit www.giftoflife.org to learn more about becoming a donor, or www.seniorswab.org to learn more about the Senior Swab program.