In 2019, during my gap year at Yeshivat Orayta in the Old City of Jerusalem, a Gift of Life representative came to speak with us about the incredible story of its founder and CEO, Jay Feinberg.
Thirty years ago, at the age of 22 — not much older than me — Jay was told by his doctor that he had leukemia and that his only chance of survival was a bone marrow transplant from a donor who had a similar ethnic background. However, the worldwide registry was severely low on Ashkenazi Jewish donors, so his family and friends set out on a four-year grassroots donor recruitment campaign, resulting in the enrollment of more than 60,000 new donors in the worldwide bone marrow registry.
As Jay’s health was failing, one final drive was held, and the last person tested turned out to be a match. After receiving a successful transplant, he decided to dedicate his life to help others, so no one has to search for years — or worse, unsuccessfully — to find their donor.
I was at a point in my life where I was trying to figure out what things are important to me in order to grow as a person. I realized that the prospect of saving another person’s life was one of those things. After hearing Jay’s story, I got my cheek swabbed. That simple act sparked a deeply fulfilling relationship with Gift of Life that I now continue as campus ambassador at Yeshiva University, educating others on the need for more stem cell and bone marrow donors.
Less than a year after I joined the registry, while extending my gap year in Israel, I received a call from an unknown number in Boca Raton, Florida. When I was told I was a potential match my heart leapt, and I was smiling like I hadn’t in a long time. When they finally asked if I was interested, I immediately blurted out “YES! Of course!” How many people can say they had the chance to save a person’s life?
But the elation was short-lived.
Another call soon came to tell me that my recipient was not strong enough to receive the stem cell donation. Gift of Life said they’d hold my name and call me back if the patient’s condition improved, but if it didn’t, they’d have to put me back on the registry. I was upset, but prayed for the best.
A few months later, I had returned home to Woodmere, New York, to celebrate my sister’s wedding and to start my experience at Yeshiva University. Unexpectedly, in the middle of my spring 2020 semester, I once again received a call from Boca Raton. With butterflies in my stomach, I answered — there was great news. My potential recipient was doing better and was ready for my stem cell donation. There was just one problem: The world had shut down due to a harrowing, burgeoning pandemic.
My patient needed this donation, but every hospital was busy and flying to Florida was out of the question. When I thought there was no way I’d be able to donate, my Gift of Life donation coordinator was extremely helpful, dedicated and determined to make it happen.
She made arrangements for a virtual physical examination, instead of at a hospital, as the final step in the medical clearance process. She also booked a licensed nurse to come to my home and give me the three shots of Neupogen, a bone marrow stimulant, that I needed before my donation in April. She arranged for me to get picked up and driven to the New York Blood Center where I did the donation.
How many people can say they had the chance to save a person’s life?
While there, I looked around and saw a lot of people donating blood and thought this was unusual given that we were at the height of a pandemic. My nurse explained these people were all donating antibody-filled plasma to help treat COVID-19 patients. The same day I was trying to do my part to make this world a brighter place, everyone around me was trying to do their part as well.
After my donation, I continued to revel in this feeling, so I decided to continue giving back. I applied for the Gift of Life Campus Ambassador Program (CAP) internship and have been a CAP for a semester and a half now. Being able to make a difference is a feeling I wish to share with everyone. Although it’s been tough trying to run events on campus during the pandemic, the other YU CAPs and I have been brainstorming ideas for when campus opens back up again: swab drives, educational events, swab drive-throughs and more.
Thinking back to how I first felt in Israel, and how being involved with Gift of Life allows me to be the Jew I want to be, is very gratifying. After wrapping up a celebration event this March marking a 30-year partnership between Gift of Life and Yeshiva University, I can’t wait to plan more events and get more people into the registry so we can save more lives together.
Sammy Intrator is a junior majoring in biology and minoring in political science at Yeshiva University.
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