The Mitzvah of Marrow Donation

In March of 2013, I volunteered to swab people’s cheeks for a bone marrow registry drive at a National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) conference. For a few hours, I sat behind a table and walked women through the easy steps of being swabbed. Near the end of my shift, I picked up a test kit and added myself to the registry. Then the event ended, and my life went on.

The Pikuah Nefesh Ball Pit
The Pikuah Nefesh Ball Pit

I graduated from college, moved to Mississippi, and started my life as a Jewish educator. My favorite program I’ve written in my role as itinerant educator is my Pikuach Nefesh ball pit. Pikuach Nefesh is the Jewish law that requires us to do almost anything — including breaking other Jewish laws — when we have the opportunity to save a life.

The program, which really does use a ball pit as well as a big game of memory and a knotted obstacle course, helps students understand that we all share a responsibility to try to save lives when called, whether we are doctors, first responders, or even students.

Then I got my call.

When The Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation told me that I was a potential match for an unrelated recipient, I actually wasn’t surprised; I always had the feeling they would call me one day, and when they did, I knew that I had to see this process through as far as it took me. Within 24-hours I had some  blood work sent off to be tested to confirm that I was the best possible match.

A month later, Ana, my incredible donor coordinator, called to tell me I’d been selected to donate peripheral blood stem cells to an unrelated 39-year-old male. I had all sorts of questions: Will he get my DNA? (Yes, but only kind of.) Can I do this in Jackson? (No, I’d have to travel.) How long do I have before we need to do this procedure? (About one month.)

Lots of needles, but still smiling!

Before I could donate, they needed to make sure I was healthy enough so I had physical exam, an EKG, chest x-rays, and more blood work than I’ve had in my entire life. I had 10 injections of filgrastim, a drug to make my stem cells multiply before collection. It seemed like a lot to do, but Gift of Life was wonderful the whole time and made all of my arrangements for me – not an easy task for someone working around a travel schedule like mine!

Finally, donation day came. I had a central line placed and was wheeled up to the apheresis room at Karmanos Cancer Center in Detroit, Michigan. In the moment, nothing I was doing felt 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. But there was one moment that did stand out for me. At the very end of the process, I saw the bag I was donating get put into a cooler. The bag had an expiration date and a courier waiting. I knew that as soon as that courier got the bag, my job was over. It was up to my little stem cells, my little donation to go save a life.

When I share this story, people always ask two things: Doesn’t donating hurt? and Do you know how your recipient is doing? My answers to these questions go hand in hand. The discomfort that accompanied my donation was nothing compared to that fantastic news I got a few months later–my recipient is currently in remission and his health is continuing to improve.

Donating is a personal and life-changing experience. Please consider registering as a donor. Gift of Life seeks to add Jewish people to bone marrow registries. People are most likely to find matches among people from similar ethnic background and there are a shortage of Jews (among other minorities) in the registry-at-large.

The Mishnah Sanhedrin 37a says that if you save one life, it is as if you saved the world. I’m no Talmud scholar, but the mere possibility at saving just one life seems like the most important opportunity I’ll ever have. I can’t wait to teach this feeling to my students.

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