I Donated Stem Cells Through The Gift of Life, and It Changed My Life
My first interaction with the organization Gift of Life, whose purpose is to facilitate bone marrow and blood stem cell donations in hopes of curing blood cancer, was in the winter of 2019 while I was in yeshiva in Israel. A representative from the organization spoke to us one evening about what they do, the importance of swabbing for potential matches and what could potentially happen if someone was a match. After he spoke, I swabbed and headed out. I knew I had just done a nice thing, but in my mind I was never going to hear from the organization again.
Fast forward to this past summer, two-and-a-half years since that night in yeshiva. Toward the end of August, I got a call from someone who worked at Gift of Life who told me that I was a stem cell match for a woman who was battling blood cancer.
The next few weeks were a blur. Coordinators reached out to plan logistics and learn about my medical history. I was flown out to Boca Raton for a physical at their headquarters, meeting with doctors, nurse practitioners and others working in the clinic. Soon after, I was cleared to be a stem cell donor and the procedure was scheduled to take place the week before Rosh Hashanah.
I was put on a special medication to boost the stem cell count in my body for five days before the procedure, but it left me feeling weak and in some pain. I did my best to stay positive throughout these early stages as I knew that this was just beginning prep. After this process, I was back in Boca Raton for the two-day procedure. I got to my hotel with enough time for a day of relaxing by the beach and the pool, mentally preparing myself for what was going to be happening the next day. Stem cells extracted from my blood were going to be saving someone else’s life. Whatever pain I was going to have to endure would pale in comparison to what my recipient was going through each day. At the same time, I was worried about complications that could arise from the procedure. Previous experiences with needles and hospitals made me weary and nervous.
The big day finally arrived, and I was a mess. Luckily, I had some prescription Xanax with me that calmed me down for the duration of the procedure. As the nurses began to prep, needles were inserted into both of my arms, one to generate the cells and the other to recycle the blood back into my body. The process took around seven hours, and was repeated the next day for another four.
After I finished the two days of collection, I left the clinic feeling weak and exhausted. Yes, I had just done something amazing, something that few people can say they have done in their lives. But I didn’t feel any different. I didn’t have a connection with my recipient; in fact, I had never even met them! Who were they? Would I ever be able to meet them? And more importantly, would they even want to meet me? This feeling stayed with me for some time, and I struggle with it even today.
I was even asked if I was comfortable with being called again to potentially donate bone marrow, a procedure which would take a lot longer, is more dangerous and would require me to be put under anesthesia. I didn’t know how to answer that question. Would my lack of agreement make me selfish? Technically, any donor can decide to opt out at any time, but that doesn’t always make it the right thing to do. In my mind I had “completed” my part of the donation process, and did not know how comfortable I was agreeing to yet another one.
Despite these questions and concerns, my experience overall was overwhelmingly positive. Every time I worried about these things, I always came back to the fantastic fact that I, alone, had done my part in saving a human life. I still can’t get over that.
Furthermore, the care and consideration that I received from Gift of Life was amazing and truly made me feel like a hero. Each person working at the organization, from the coordinators and secretaries to the doctors and nurses, was extremely caring and willing to cater to my every need. Nothing that I requested was too much for them, and they made sure my accommodations were taken care of without worry. Any concern I had about the procedure was explained to me in great detail, and anything that I was uncomfortable with was immediately taken care of.
Thanks to both this positive experience in the moment and the emotional gratification of doing such an important deed, I highly encourage everyone who is reading this to find the location of your next local Gift of Life swabbing event and actively do your best to attend. It takes less than ten minutes to give all your information and swab inside your mouth. You could be the reason that someone else gets another chance at living.
Realistically, you probably will not be a match. One in every 250 donors is called as a match, but that number doesn’t always result in your going ahead to donate. There are genetic screenings and medical tests to complete, and by the time they’re finished, 80 percent of donors end up being sent home.
That said, there is always a chance that your DNA will be used to save someone else’s life. There is now a part of my body that is helping someone else in the world breathe, eat and function like they normally would. I never believed that I would be called upon to go ahead and donate stem cells, but my donation happened and a woman is alive today because of it.
Photo Caption: The author after his donation with Gift of Life
Photo Credit: Raphi Singer