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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

PERSPECTIVE: Students give gift of life with marrow

Published: March 18, 2005
Section: News

Debbie Swarz 03 saved a life. When she walked into the Gift of Life bone marrow drive four years ago as a photographer for The Justice, she didnt even intend to participate. She simply came to cover the event for the paper and to take a few pictures. She certainly had no idea that by going there she would end up saving a life.

Gift of Life is an organization dedicated to registering mainly Jews in the International Bone Marrow Registry in order to provide people who are in need of a bone marrow transplant a greater possibility of a match. Though Gift of Life welcomes registration from anyone healthy enough to do so, Daniel Glass 07, who spearheaded the last drive here in early March, explained the reason for the targeting of Jews by Gift of Life. Jews find it a little bit harder than the rest of the population to find bone marrow matches because bone marrow matches are most likely to be found within your own ethnic group, or maybe your twelfth cousin whos a total stranger, but hes your twelfth cousin. With Jews, that twelfth cousin might never have been born because his grandfather was killed in the holocaust, he said.

He further explained that it is because of this massive loss of bloodlines 60 years ago that it is important for Jews to have a disproportionate amount of their population represented in the international registry.

The procedure nowadays is simple. Participants are asked to swab the inside of their cheeks with elongated Q-tips in four places. Those samples are then processed and organized into tissue types to identify possible matches for patients.

There is a hefty cost to process each sampleabout $100, which is, financially, where Gift of Life comes in.

Four years ago, the process was far more complicated. When Swarz first decided to participate, she had to give a test tube of blood. Ironically for Swarz, donating that blood sample was not so easy. She has a slight medical conditionmild asthmawhich put up a few roadblocks and red tape along the way to getting her into the registry.

They told me that I couldnt donate because they said that they cant be responsible for anyone who cannot go under anesthesia, she recalled. She persisted. It turns out that I ended up calling my doctor and fighting with them back and forth because I wanted to let her know that I was healthy and I could donate, so I ended up giving blood.

And then, about a year and a half later, she got a call. I thought it was just some kind of telemarketer wanting money. I was about to hang up the phone on them, and they told me I was a match. She then went in for more testing to see if the match was good enough for her to donate. It was, and she did.

She had no idea who she was saving. She didnt even know whether the transplant would be a success, Swarz did it anyway. The doctors put her under general anesthesia and extracted marrow from her hip. The effects were minimal. She was sore and reports feeling weak for a few days, and she had to boost her iron levels with supplements and the appropriate foods. She believes that in the end she came out stronger than when she started because the surgery, incidentally, ended up strengthening her hipbone.

And about a year after the surgery Swarz had the opportunity to meet the person she saved at the annual Gift of Life dinner. It was a very surreal experience meeting her, because youve gone through so much for someone and you dont even know who they are, she said.

With this years drive succeeding in registering 261 more people into the international registry, many more people will have a chance to experience what Swarz has. At 261, it was the second largest college campus bone marrow drive ever, according to Glass.
Swarz, though, is not the only one from Brandeis who donated bone marrow. Noam Stern 06 did as well. He swabbed his cheeks three years ago at a drive in Israel and was called a year and a half later. He went in for second level typing at the health center on campus, where they told him that his blood was a perfect match. I was excited at the idea that if the situation was flipped and I was the person who needed the donation, then I would be incredibly excited to find out that there was someone else, so I felt really good about it.

The aftereffects of the surgery for Stern were minor as well. The surgery itself took about an hour, and he was able to return to classes the very next day.

Stern, though, has not yet met his recipient due to other countries privacy laws (he has reason to suspect that his recipient lives in Italy), but nonetheless hopes that one day they will eventually cross paths. At the time he donated, Stern remarked it would not have mattered to him if he would ever meet his recipient, but as he looks back now his perspective has changed. I dont really think I understand what actually happened. I understand intellectually that this person had leukemia and his immune system was very weak, so they knocked out his immune system and gave it a jumpstart from mine. But the idea that hes an actual person walking around and out of a hospital, it hasnt gotten emotionally processed, he said.

Without people like Glass, the drives that enable college students like Swarz and Stern to save lives would have a much harder time getting off the ground. Glass first got the idea for the drive at a BOO Chesed meeting, which is a wing of the Brandeis Orthodox Organization dedicated to social justice and helping others.

I thought that [a bone marrow drive] was a great idea. No one really wanted to spearhead it, so I just decided that if no ones going to do it, I might as well do it, Glass said.

Most of Glasss efforts, along with his numerous volunteers, went into publicizing and advertising the drive, in addition to getting the actual testing supplies from Gift of Life. On the day of the drive Glass and his volunteers even went door to door to get more people. He hopes that with the large response a few bone marrow matches will be found. There arent firm numbers, he said, but about 1 in 200 or so who are tested donate one time in their life. Odds are that with 261 that we saved at least one persons life, which is pretty cool.

Glass was genuinely surprised by the level and quality of response he received from people on campus. I was touched by people who contacted me who wanted to help because of personal things that they had gone through, either with relatives dying of leukemia or of them just having been recipients of bone marrow transplants, or donors. I was contacted by a good number of people like that who I was really touched by, he said.

In a last ditch effort to squeeze in a few more people, he recalled how he went downstairs to the Usdan cafeteria, the drive taking place upstairs in International Lounge that day. I went down to every single table in Usdan, told people about the driveI thought they were kind of blowing me off and I was getting a little annoyed at themI got back to the drive to finish cleaning up expecting about one person to be there, and there were about two dozen people to my surprise, he said. Thats really a great statement about the students at Brandeis.

In terms of registering and the commitment involved if matched, Glass said that everyone should make their own decisions, realizing the extent of the commitment. Having done the surgery Stern and Swarz assessed the situation from a different perspective. As much as the idea of surgery can be very scary, the real risks are very minimal, Stern said.

The idea that someone else, someone who actually does match not going through the surgery I think is much scarier, Stern said. Swarz shared a similar perspective. If I was passing by a burning building and knew that I could save the person inside and only get a scratch, how could I not do it? she said.