Painless Gift Of Life
06/22/07
Staff Writer
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One of the guests of honor at the recent commencement exercises of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, sitting at the far left of the first row of the sanctuary in Temple Emanu-El, was neither guest speaker, college official Nor financial supporter of the institution. Dalia Samansky, a third-year rabbinical student at the school’s Los Angeles campus who received her master’s degree in L.A. the following week, was invited to the New York commencement as role model. She had saved a life. Philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, keynote speaker at the Temple Emanu-El ceremony, made brief remarks about Samansky, who had served as a bone marrow donor two years ago for Wendy Feller, an actress from Providence who had leukemia. Then Schusterman introduced Samansky and Feller, who was also sitting in the front row, at the far right. The two walked onto the bima, where they saw each other for the first time, hugging and holding hands, in a meeting arranged by the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation. "We just held each other and looked into each other’s eyes for I don’t know how long," Feller, 59, says, "Dalia gave me orchids. I gave Dalia an antique pin." "Thank you for saving my life," Feller whispered. Each said a few words to the audience. "As future Jewish leaders we will be given many opportunities to touch and inspire lives, but rarely are we given the opportunity to truly partner with God in helping to save a life," Samansky said. "Two years ago when living in Israel for my first year of rabbinical school, I was given that opportunity. And thankfully, with the help of good doctors and your inspiring determination to live and thrive, you and I are blessed to be meeting today." Samansky, 27, a native of Los Angeles, was introduced to Gift of Life (www.giftoflife.org) during a CAJE educators’ conference in Columbus, Ohio, in 2003. Jay Feinberg, Gift of Life founder and himself a bone marrow recipient, described the foundation’s work — it facilitates bone marrow, blood stem cell and umbilical cord transplants for children and adults suffering from life-threatening illnesses. The foundation concentrates on the Jewish community, because the odds of finding a transplant match are greater in a recipient’s ethnic community, and because the pool of potential Jewish donors was substantially reduced by the murder of six million people during the Holocaust. The 16-year-old organization has a donor base of 115,000 donors, and has made 1,500 matches. Samansky signed on. She joined "a bunch" of CAJE participants who were tested in a lobby of an Ohio State University building. The next year, Gift of Life called. "You are a potential match" for someone who is critically ill in the United States, the caller told Samansky. "Are you still willing to be a donor?" "The question seemed silly," she says. "From the beginning my only stipulation was as long as it didn’t require me to drop out of my classes I would go through with it," she told her friends. "For the chance to save a life I am willing to go through inconvenience and pain, but I could not redo the year in Israel." Further testing at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem confirmed that she was a good match — "an exact match, 10 out of 10" antigen and sub-antigen proteins, genetic markers — for the anonymous recipient. During a winter break, Samansky underwent further testing at a Boston hospital and donated the bone marrow — actually, the same stem cells from her blood that actual bone marrow yields. Her experience reflected recent advances in transplant technology. Her original test for compatibility was conducted with a cotton swab in her cheek, instead of a blood sample. And her donation was done, like platelet donations at blood centers, with needles in both arms, instead of, more invasively and more painfully, through a bone in the leg. The changes "make [the donation process] a little more appealing," says Shauna Sheffer, public relations coordinator for the Minneapolis-based National Marrow Donor Program. Since its first successful use in 1968, bone marrow transplants have been used to treat patients diagnosed with leukemia, aplastic anemia, lymphomas such as Hodgkin’s disease, multiple myeloma, immune deficiency disorders and some solid tumors such as breast and ovarian cancer. "Donating bone marrow is not what it used to be," Samansky says. "There is now a much easier process for the donors." She was put on a five-day regimen of Neupogen, a protein-based drug that stimulates the production of white blood cells. "There are a few side effects that come along with the Neupogen. A headache and an ‘achy’ feeling." Her discomfort, she says, "is nothing compared to the benefit this has the potential to have." At the same time, Feller, in the same hospital as Samansky, underwent a high dose of radiation and chemotherapy to kill her entire immune system and prepare her to accept Samansky’s bone marrow. Samansky went back to school, receiving periodic updates about the improvement in Feller’s condition. They exchanged unsigned notes. After a year, they could meet, if they wished; federal law bars bone marrow donors and recipients from identifying themselves to each other for a year after a transplant. Gift of Life arranged the meeting at the HUC commencement to promote its work before a large audience of current and future Jewish leaders. Feller and Samansky agreed to the public meeting. "It will give Gift of Life publicity," Samansky thought. "I wanted to meet her and I know she wanted to meet me," Feller says. "What an ideal way to meet." "It was quite an emotional experience," Feinberg says. "People were pretty touched." The foundation stages a similar meeting at its annual Partners for Life dinner in Manhattan each spring. Three donor-recipient pairs were to meet at the seventh annual dinner at the Grand Hyatt last week. At the HUC commencement, Samansky says, she was approached by several people, including Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the school; Rabbi Sally Priesand, the first woman ordained by HUC; and singer Debby Friedman. "People I looked up to were thanking me." After the ceremony, Feller and Samansky went to dinner. They plan to stay in touch. "We are connected for the rest of my life," Samansky says. She says she will give sermons about the donation experience when she has her own pulpit. "It had a huge impact" on her life, she says. "It shows you can save lives — anyone can."

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12/24/2009 - 15:06

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