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Connected From The Inside
Bone marrow donor and recipient share an emotional meeting in Oak Park.
In May 2011, while Bayla Hochheiser was mourning the loss of a beloved family member who died of cancer, she received an unexpected call that would remarkably allow her to save the life of someone else battling the disease.
The call was from the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation — a public bone marrow registry that helps children and adults find donors for bone marrow and stem cell transplants — informing her she was a match for a woman in need of a stem cell donation.
“I was in the car with my brother Yossie on a Friday afternoon coming from a shivah house for my Aunt Tami Fink, who had passed away two days before from breast cancer,” Bayla said. “I thought: How could I not try and save this lady’s life? If my aunt could have been saved by a stem cell or bone marrow transplant and there was a match who didn’t want to donate, I would be devastated. So how could I do that to another family?”
Bayla, now 22, of Oak Park, had been identified as a match through information stored in the Gift of Life registry, which she joined during a February 2009 drive with a simple cheek swab at Darchei Binah in Jerusalem when she was a student there.
During her phone call from the Boca Raton-based Gift of Life, the only thing she was told about the recipient was her diagnosis, age and gender.
In California, Cyndi Schaechter, then 52, critically ill with leukemia, was given the news that a young woman was found to be a perfect match as a donor for her.
“When they told me they found Bayla, I was so relieved,” Cyndi said. “When I was diagnosed in April 2011, I was very ill and needed a stem cell transplant right away. One of my sisters was an exact match, but could not be a donor because she had breast cancer within the past five years. There was also a man in Europe who was a match, but Bayla was in the U.S., and time was really critical. Matches are graded, with 10 being the best. Bayla is a 10.”
Assuring The Match
To be sure Bayla fit the health guidelines for becoming a donor, she says she “had to go for lots of blood tests.” According to giftoflife.org, a blood sample is taken to confirm the match, after which the potential donor receives a complete physical exam, has a health history taken and then more blood work.
“They were checking for any diseases I may be carrying — HIV, AIDS, STDs — and they did a chest X-ray,” Bayla said. “They had to make sure that the stem cells they were putting into the recipient didn’t carry anything that would make her sicker. And I went every two weeks to get blood tests to make sure I wasn’t pregnant.”
Eighty percent of eligible donors donate blood stem cells and 20 percent donate bone marrow, with the treatment option determined by the patient’s physician. A bone marrow donation involves a surgical procedure done under general or regional anesthesia, during which needles are used to withdraw liquid marrow from the back of the pelvic bone.
Bayla was a peripheral blood stem cell (PBSC) donor, undergoing a non-surgical procedure performed at Karmanos Cancer Institute-Wertz Clinical Cancer Center at Detroit Medical Center in Detroit.
PBSC donors receive five injections of filgrastim during the days leading up to the procedure to increase the number of blood-forming cells in the bloodstream.
“The problem is that the body doesn’t reproduce stem cells so we have to make our bodies do so with the injections,” Bayla said. “The shots made my bones go into overdrive to make these stem cells.”
The procedure took place in August 2011.
“I was hooked up to a machine, kind of like a dialysis machine, for about five hours,” she said. Through a process called aphaeresis, her blood was removed through a needle in one arm and passed through the machine that separated out the blood-forming cells. The remaining blood was returned to her through the other arm. Her parents, Bracha and Michael Hochheiser, and a friend took turns being with her during the process.
“My husband, Ira, and I were really concerned for her before and during the procedure,” Cyndi said. “We couldn’t imagine someone 21 being ready to do this for me.”
The next step was “just like you see on TV,” Cyndi said. “A man took the bag of Bayla’s stem cells from the hospital in Detroit and flew it across the country to where I was in California. It did not leave his sight. He brought it into my hospital room and seven or eight nurses read a list of numbers and verified that it was for me. Then they hooked me up to the bag through a surgically implanted IV in my chest, and the man left.”
She was surrounded by her family during the two-hour process. “What was in the bag was more valuable than gold to me; it was my life,” she said.
“By the time I received the stem cells, I was really sick. I had had extreme chemotherapy and radiation and was in seclusion because I was susceptible to infection. I was on pain medication and all kinds of other drugs.”
With a long road ahead of her, she was able to leave the hospital three weeks after the transplant.
“Months and months later, I started to get my strength back,” Cyndi said. This past September, she participated in the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer in Santa Barbara to support research for the disease battled by two of her sisters. But she says she and her sisters “are all working our way back to health.”
“I still get fatigued in the late afternoons, but I’m in remission and doing great, thanks to Bayla. My prognosis is good.”
Bayla also spent part of this past summer giving back.
“She shared her story and coordinated a bone marrow recruitment drive at Camp Sternberg in Narrowsburg, N.Y.,” said Marti Freund, community relations manager for Gift of Life. “She encouraged camp staff to join the registry through the ‘Finding the Hero in You at Camp’ program, which we run in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp.”
Time For A Meeting
A couple of months after the procedure, Bayla received a letter of thanks from Cyndi. “Also every couple of months, Gift of Life would call me with health updates,” she said. “But legally I was not allowed to find out any personal information for a year after the procedure, and then only if both parties agreed.”
When the year was up, Bayla submitted her name, address and email address to Gift of Life and received an email from Cyndi, a Jewish woman, who told her she was from Oak Park, Calif., a coincidence for Bayla, who lives in Oak Park, Mich. “She asked me to call her, and in our first conversation, she mentioned that she wanted to meet me,” Bayla said.
Earlier last month, that meeting took place on a Friday afternoon that led to Shabbat dinner at the Hochheiser home, along with family members, including Bayla’s late Aunt Tami’s husband, Gary Fink of Farmington Hills.
Cyndi visited, along with her sister Joy Bressler and her husband, Gary, who surprisingly was born in Detroit and raised in Oak Park.
“When Bayla’s mom opened the door and welcomed us, there was an amazing, heartwarming, pleasant feeling,” Cyndi said. “I wanted to burst out crying.”
“It was very emotional,” Bayla remembered. “My mom, Cyndi and Joy were all in tears. It was a little overwhelming for me being thanked so many times for doing something that to me seemed so ethical and small.”
Cyndi hugged Bayla and told her soflty, “From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”
“I was so compelled to meet her, I would have moved mountains,” Cyndi said. “How can you say, ‘Thank you for saving my life?’ I thought about it every single day. In my mind, the best way to thank her was to physically hold her and tell her that she didn’t just save my life; she gave my mother and father their baby; my three older sisters who I talk to every day got their sister back; my sons, who are 20 and 23, away at school, can call at 2 a.m. if they don’t feel well. She gave my husband someone to come home to and my best friends back their friend. I wanted to tell her in person, ‘You didn’t save a life, but a village.’
“She’s such a joy, an amazing, phenomenal, unbelievable, selfless girl with a great, big smile, who can turn anything around. It was amazing to meet her and hold her and feel her positive energy.”
Among gifts for the family, Cyndi brought Bayla a necklace with a porcelain charm of Moses holding the Ten Commandments. “I wanted her to have something dainty that she would be comfortable wearing to remind her forever and ever of what she did,” she said.
Bayla plans to visit Cyndi and her family in California later this month. “My whole family wants to meet her and hug her,” Cyndi said.
The families already have an unexpected connection. Cyndi discovered the Hochheisers and Cyndi’s ancestors each have a branch on the same family tree.
Bayla relayed that her inspiration to be a donor came both from the memory of her Aunt Tami and from an act performed by her brother Yossie.
“The main reason I entered the registry was because he donated bone marrow,” Bayla said. Yossie, who is now 30, was a donor five years ago for a 12-year-old boy from Florida, who had been suffering from T-cell lymphoma and has had no positive scans since the transplant. Bayla was with Yossie when he first met the recipient, with whom he still keeps in touch.
“My sister and I did what we think anyone would have done,” said Yossie, who lives in University Heights, Ohio. “We are blessed to be put in a position to be able to make a difference in someone’s life. It is not a Jewish thing; I donated to a non-Jew. It is a human being thing.”
Each year he speaks at a Cleveland-area day school. “I like to tell the story of a person walking down the street mid-December, who sees a baby stroller in the middle of the street with a plow coming full-speed ahead. Who would not take the time to push the stroller out of the street? We don’t know whether there is a baby inside or not; we don’t know whether it’s a Jewish baby. We would all take the time and move it to the side of the road.
“It’s the same thing with getting swabbed (to be added to the registry). We don’t know if our swab will save someone’s life. We do it because if that was our baby in the stroller we would want someone to save our child’s life.”
Gift of Life’s Freund said, “Both Bayla and her brother really are an inspiration to anybody looking to join a registry. If there were more people like them, we would never have to worry about finding a match and more lives would be saved. They are really heroes and should be praised for such a selfless act that gave somebody a second chance at life.”
Bayla said, “I feel truly honored to be able to have saved someone’s life. Everyone in this world deserves to live, and I am just happy I got to help someone be able to do that.”
Judaism And Donation
Virtually all streams of Judaism consider the donation of an organ that the donor can live without, or a body part that can be replenished — like bone marrow or blood — as one of the greatest acts possible if it is donated to save or vastly improve another life, and if it is given by a living donor.
“It is truly remarkable how advances in medical science provide us with new mitzvot,” said Rabbi Elimelech Silberberg of the Sara and Morris Tugman Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield. “Up until this point, one fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah by sharing one’s possessions with someone in need. Today, we can fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah by sharing parts of one’s body with someone in need.”
However, becoming an organ donor following death presents specific concerns, and Silberberg suggests consultation with a knowledgeable authority. Some state that, although saving a life could override the Torah’s commandment that we should be buried whole, body parts should only be removed if there is the assurance that they will directly save a life and not be used for research, stored away or discarded.
There is also the issue of removing an organ from a person whose heart is still beating. Although medically and legally a person may be declared dead if there is brain death, traditional Jewish law maintains that if the heart is beating, the person is alive and removal of certain organs would cause death.
About Gift Of Life
• Donors must be between ages 18-60.
• An average of one in 1,000 individuals in the Gift of Life registry are asked to donate every year.
• All expenses are paid by the patient’s insurance or Gift of Life.
• Only 30 percent of patients will find a suitable match within their family; the rest must seek the assistance of unrelated volunteer donors.
• Testing for a specific patient must be done privately.
• There are 212,585 registered donors and 9,335 matches in 40 countries served.
To contact the Gift of Life Bone Marrow Foundation, call (800) 962-7769 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Shelli Liebman Dorfman, JN Contributing Writer