Alum and patient become ‘blood relatives’

When Jillian Roth allowed a donor registry to swab her mouth in Hillel four years ago, she never expected it to amount to anything. But this July, Roth got a call that changed her life.

The 2005 alumna heard from the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, who had matched her bone marrow to a terminally ill woman. By the end of the month, she was sitting in a hospital room as blood drained out of her neck and into a machine that extracted her stem cells.

The cells would be used to save a woman she had never met who was twice her age and suffering from leukemia.

“The woman is around my mother’s age; she probably has children my age. I just put myself in her place. If someone in my family needed a donor, I’d hope someone would do this for them,” Roth, 25, said. “The fact (that) I was this person’s perfect match and I didn’t know her, I knew I had to do it.”

GW Hillel has partnered with Gift of Life since 1994. Since then four out of the 650 GW donors have donated, said Shayne Pilpel, recruitment coordinator for Gift of Life.

“The chances of being a match are so slim, they’re like the chances of winning the lottery,” said Roth, who works for a media communications firm in New York City.

The registry began in 1991 to help save the life of Jay Feinberg, a leukemia patient, but has now grown to a registry of 120,000 bone marrow donors. More than 4,000 patients and donors have been matched, and of that about 1,500 have had transplants.

Roth said she was drawn to Gift of Life four years ago because her friend’s cousin had leukemia. She joined the registry to see if she could be his match.

This summer, after attending an information session about the risk factors, Roth decided to go through with the procedure. Most of her family and friends were supportive, but Roth said she knew she “would do it even if everyone else wasn’t on board.”

But it wasn’t easy.

Roth calls herself “a very nervous person on a good day” and is afraid of needles and doctor visits. This clashed with the intense blood work and X-rays necessary before the operation. She had her heart activity tracked. She was tested for infectious diseases. With each test, she remained fearful.

But four days before the procedure the cancer patient went through chemotherapy and Roth said her outlook changed. Chemotherapy kills old cells that aren’t working properly and sets the entire immune system at zero. The woman would have likely died if she had backed out then – she needed Roth’s stem cells to replace her old ones.

“I felt lucky being able to do something like this,” Roth said. “If I didn’t get to do it, I’d be disappointed.”

On July 29, Roth had a catheter-like apparatus hooked into her neck. Her blood flowed into a machine that stripped her blood of its stem cells and then transferred the blood back into her neck through another tube.

She listened to her iPod, sent text messages, drank and ate, all while wrapped in a blanket that Gift of Life had sent her.

All that was left was a bag of stem cells, which looked like a bag of blood similar to what one donates at a blood drive. On July 30 the stem cells were transplanted into the donor recipient’s body.

The 56-year-old woman is now cancer-free and Roth has only a tiny scratch on her neck.

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