As I write this article, I’m on a small plane, throttling over the clouds somewhere between Florida1 and Montreal. Someone behind me is snoring, and I’m tapping away quietly on my laptop, trying not to wake them up. I’ve just returned from one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’d like to share the story.

In the summer of 2018, I went on an organized trip to Israel, called Birthright, or Taglit in Hebrew. The trip is sponsored by the Israeli government and is made free for young Jews, in an effort to encourage a connection and immigration to Israel. We spent ten days hauling around the beautiful country on a bus, visiting various sites and attractions. One evening, a man from an organization called Gift of Life came to speak to our group. He explained that GoL is a registry with a mission to cure blood cancer through cellular therapy,2 and we could get involved. The organization runs drives on campuses and elsewhere, and that to join the registry of potential donors, we had to swab our cheeks. If anyone of us were found to be a match for someone with leukemia, we would have the opportunity to donate bone marrow. I completed the kit and joined the registry without much thought.

A few months ago, I got an email from GoL that I was a potential match for a man suffering from leukemia. At that point, I was told, I had a 25% chance of being a match. That was much better than the 1 in 430 chance most donors had, but I still didn’t think much of it. I was asked to do another cheek swab test, which was sent to me through expedited delivery from GoL’s lab in Florida. Blood tests followed, all hurriedly done in clinics that had been transformed into Covid-19 testing sites. Montreal was under lockdown and travel was restricted, so it was a nerve-wracking time. 

After the tests, things picked up pace. I still remember the phone call I received, telling me that I was a match. The plan was to fly me Florida to go through a procedure where my stem cells could be extracted and transplanted into the leukemia patient, saving his life. 

In late October, GoL flew my sister and I to Florida, all expenses paid. We were there for a week, since for 4 days prior to the procedure I had to be injected each morning with a medication to increase the stem cell count in my blood. We were put up in a hotel by the beach, and each day after my morning injection my sister and I got to explore the area. We visited museums, the wetlands, Trader Joe’s and the beach. As this was the height of the election, we witnessed multiple Trump rallies, a mask burning ceremony, and we were told who to vote for by cashiers, Uber drivers, and an anti-vax protester (too bad neither me nor my sister are American).  

At the end of the week, a sleek car service drove us to the donation center. It didn’t seem clinical at all- we were greeted warmly, and offered snacks, a blanket, and other comforts. I was shown into a cubicle where the nurses administered some tests and gave me my final shot of medication. Then, I had a needle inserted into each of my arms. During a process called Peripheral Blood Stem Cell (PBSC) donation, blood was taken out of one arm and run through a machine called a blood cell separator. The machine took PBSC, some platelets, and some white blood cells, and then returned plasma and red blood cells into my other arm.3

After about six hours, the machine was still chugging away beside me. Two women in lab coats, with clipboards and somber expressions, came into the cubicle. 

Photo: “Pinning my location on the map of donors… I had to estimate my city’s location since the map only included the United States” by Ita Sonnenschein

“We have bad news,” they said.

At that point, I was tired, calcium deficient and cranky, and I feared the worst. Maybe my stem cells weren’t good enough. Maybe the patient’s condition had deteriorated. My worries proved to be unfounded when they said was that my stem cells were slow and I would need to stay in Florida for an extra day to finish the process. Our flight was changed and our hotel stay was extended.

Day two of the extraction process was rough. Both my arms were sore so I couldn’t move much. My fingers and nose were tingling and I was light-headed. After a total of eleven hours, they had collected all the stem cells and plasma that they needed. (For comparison, the guy in the next cubicle took three hours to donate.) 

I’ll have to wrap up this article because the plane is landing, and I should probably stow my laptop. I feel really blessed to have been afforded this opportunity. Not many people get the chance to save a life, and in sunny Florida, no less. This experience restored my faith in humanity just a tiny bit. First, it’s thanks to modern medicine and technology that I could fly to another country, have some of my insides removed, and have that flown across the world to save someone’s life. Second, the existence of Gift of Life facilitated this entire process, thanks to all the financial donors, employees, and everyone who’s gotten their cheeks swabbed and joined the registry. I’m enormously grateful to have been a part of it all. 

To find out how you can join the registry and potentially save a life, visit www.giftoflife.org.

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