Bone Marrow Transplant Survivor Giving ‘gift of Life’ to Israeli Patient

Jay Feinberg knows what it means to have leukemia — he was diagnosed with the blood cancer 11 years ago.

In addition to the excruciating chemotherapy treatments, he knows, are the long periods of waiting.

It took Feinberg four years to find a bone marrow donor. After the transplant he waited for weeks in isolation, watching and praying as his blood count rose slowly, a tenth of a percentage at a time.

Now, someone in Israel is waiting for him.

A 7-year-old boy with acute leukemia is praying a cooler he was scheduled to receive from New York on Wednesday holds his cure.

Feinberg, 33, founder and executive director of the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry in Delray Beach, Fla., is delivering the harvested bone marrow personally.

“We are trying to make a statement that, despite the terror that occurs on a daily basis, there are people still willing to save a life,” Feinberg says.

Gift of Life, which began as a campaign to save Feinberg’s life, has grown into an organization dedicated to finding matching donors for Jews around the world. Its registry is made up of 70,000 entries, 98 percent of them from Ashkenazi Jews.

This trip marks the first time Gift of Life has helped an Israeli.

International standards set by the World Marrow Donors Association ensure the donor and the recipient must remain anonymous. They can communicate by letter, without identifying themselves, but can’t meet in person until a year after the transplant.

Leukemia patients’ bodies produce an uncontrolled amount of certain white blood cells, so they must destroy their own immune systems through extensive chemotherapy before rebuilding with transplants of healthy bone marrow. That marrow reproduces and essentially builds an entirely new immune system.

Leukemia can confound doctors and families: Genetic tissue from a sibling has a 25 percent chance of matching. Beyond that, however, it is nearly impossible to find a perfect match, so as close a match as possible is used.

Similar tissue will have matches for four or five out of six necessary human antigens. As with other bodily donations, however, a dissimilar bone marrow or blood stem cell likely will be rejected by the body, so finding the closest match is vital.

Depending on the patient’s condition and diagnosis, the transplant comes either as a blood stem cell or as bone marrow, where the cell is made.

In 1991, Feinberg was a year out of college and an aspiring lawyer when he was diagnosed with leukemia.

The Friends of Jay Feinberg, a group comprised of Feinberg, his family, friends and hundreds of volunteers, tested tens of thousands of people internationally in search of a matching bone marrow donor.

In 1995, as Feinberg’s condition worsened and he neared death, a volunteer in Milwaukee tested as his closest match. Feinberg received the donation and survived, and his organization became known as Gift of Life.

“My experience made me understand more about the value of life, and of the individual,” he says.

He plans to mark the seven-year anniversary of his transplant celebrating with his donor, who has become a close friend.

Gift of Life has helped over 500 people find donors since 1995, in countries ranging from Costa Rica to France.

While it won’t turn away any potential donors, most of the people in its registries are Jewish.

There are some 48 such registries around the world, with about 7.5 million people registered. The number of Jews in those registries is small, however, so Gift of Life was founded to improve Jewish patients’ chances of finding a genetically similar donor.

“What makes Gift of Life unique is its recruitment missions,” Feinbergs says, referring to the organization’s attempts to expand the pool of Jewish donors. “The belief in saving a life, it’s a mitzvah.”

Information on donations to Gift of Life can be found at www.giftoflife.org.

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