Freshman Amy Fishman is preparing to have doctors at GW Hospital insert needles into both of her arms to donate bone marrow, in an effort to save a stranger’s life.
After holding a bone marrow registration drive last semester, Fishman’s tissue type matched up to someone else’s in a bone marrow registry. On February 15, she’ll undergo a procedure, similar to blood donation, known as peripheral blood stem cell donation. She said she has no doubts about the procedure and is happy to help.
“I didn’t think twice,” Fishman said, after receiving a call from Gift of Life, the group sponsoring the November drive.
The organization is dedicated to increasing the number of Jewish people who sign up as potential marrow donors since Jewish patients in need are more likely to find a marrow match with another Jewish person. Because the Holocaust diminished Jewish bloodlines, a greater number of Jews is needed in the bone marrow donor pool. The prospective donors in the Gift of Life program all have at least one Jewish grandparent.
Patients suffering from leukemia, lymphoma aplastic anemia and some forms of cancer, among other disorders, need bone marrow to be treated or cured. According to the University of Cincinnati Medical Center, 75 percent of patients who need marrow cannot find a family member with the correct tissue type, so potential recipients often turn to registries for matches.
Hillel members Jamie Konigsberg and Shira Rosenwald organized the drive after learning about the need for bone marrow drives on college campuses and realizing how many Jewish students attend GW.
The bone marrow test simply requires a Q-Tip swab from the inside of a potential donor’s cheek. When a person gets tested for Gift of Life, the information goes into a worldwide registry, and that person can potentially donate marrow to anyone in the world in need who is also signed up with Gift of Life.
Konigsberg said after learning about the program, she was inspired to organize her own drive here and teamed up with Rosenwald, with whom she has worked on projects in the past. Hillel donated its space, and besides professional staff members who did the medical screening, “everything else was student-run,” Konigsberg said.
Konigsberg and Rosenwald said the large number of people who turned out to get tested included GW students, Jewish professionals, students’ family members and even the cameraman from the Fox News team that covered the event.
The student organizers said they felt especially lucky about their event because out of the 348 people they tested, they found two matches, while the usual ratio is one match per 1,000 people tested.
In 2001, religious studies professor Robert Eisen attended a similar Gift of Life drive. Nine months ago he got a call from the group saying he was a match, and he didn’t even think about saying no, he said.
Eisen said the procedure is a minor inconvenience and is not overwhelming, though for five days he took a drug that stimulated his stem cells made him feel “achy” and “crummy.”
He donated his marrow to a 37-year-old man with leukemia, but he has no other information about the person’s life he helped save.
“I got no names, and I don’t know where he is,” Eisen said.
Two weeks after the donation, Eisen received a “tremendously moving” note from the man’s wife saying that the transfer had been initially successful.
“(Donation was) one of the best things I’ve ever done,” Eisen sad. “The fact that I didn’t know the person made it all the more special – it’s the ultimate act of giving.”