If you were at Washington Institute in 2013, you might remember me. I was one of the women sitting behind the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Registry table calling out to you, “Would you be interested in swabbing your cheek to save a life?”
Back then, I had just finished my time as a legislative intern in the NCJW DC office and was inspired to volunteer in honor of Elissa Froman z’’l, who was, at the time, the senior legislative associate. She was on medical leave during my internship, but I felt her profound impact in the office every day.
I would have been at that same table at Washington Institute this past March as well, but before I could call out to you again, the Gift of Life called out to me.
I have to admit, when my donor coordinator let me know I was a potential match for an unrelated recipient, I wasn’t too surprised; I always had an intuitive feeling that they would call me one day. I also always felt strongly that when they did, I would see the process through as far as it took me. Within 24-hours of receiving my call, I had blood work done and it was sent off to the recipient’s transplant team to determine if I was the best possible match.
Just about one month later, Gift of Life called me again to tell me I’d been selected to donate peripheral blood stem cells (PBSC) to a 39-year-old male with acute myelogenous leukemia (AML). This is sort of like hitting the lottery: only about 1/40 people who are in the registry ever get called as a possible match. Only about 1/380 are selected as the best possible match. Only 1/540 in the registry actually donate their bone marrow or stem cells.
I had all sorts of questions, and Ana, my coordinator, was wonderful in helping answer all of them. I wanted to know if he would get my DNA (yes, but only sort of). I wanted to know if I could have the whole procedure done where I live in Jackson, MS (no, there are places that specialize in these procedures). I wanted to know when my donation would be (as soon as possible, hopefully within the month). After my donation physical, they determined my veins were not strong enough and my donation would happen via a central line in my jugular vein. I was suddenly very scared. Incredibly, Ana put me in touch with someone who’d made her donation in the same way. The woman I spoke with explained exactly what would happen with the procedure and told me about her choice to go through with the donation. Most importantly, she mentioned that even though the central line was unexpected and more intrusive than she’d anticipated when she started the donor process, she would do it again if asked. No question. I was reassured and more resolute in my decision to donate than ever.
Finally, donation day came. My dad graciously drove up from Columbus to meet me in Detroit, where I was to have the procedure. We checked in at the hospital, I had my line placed, and was wheeled up to the apheresis room at Karmanos Cancer Center. PBSC is collected via apheresis; essentially blood is drawn from the body just like any blood donation, then filtered through an apheresis machine and spun such that it separates into different levels. The level with the blood-forming cells are stored and the rest is heated and returned to the body.
During the actual donation, it did not feel like what I was doing was that special – I could see the tube with the blood going out and another with the blood coming back in. It was all very clinical. The standout moment for me came at the end, when I saw my cells get put into a cooler. The bag my cells were in noted that they would expire within 24 hours and there was a courier standing by. I knew that as soon as that courier got the bag, he was headed to the airport to deliver hope for recovery to someone eagerly anticipating its arrival. My job was over. It was up to my little stem cells, my little donation to go save a life.
Had it not been for NCJW or Elissa’s memory. This moment might not have come to be. The Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a teaches that if you save one life, it is as if you saved the world. I am no Talmud scholar, but the mere possibility of saving just one life seems like the most important opportunity I will ever have.
Leah Apothaker is an Education Fellow at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, MS. She is a Life Member of the Columbus Section and looks forward to joining the San Antonio Section when she becomes the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Beth El in July.