Spencer swabbed to join Gift of Life’s registry after hearing how Jay Feinberg, the organization’s founder and CEO, and his family ran a worldwide, four-year search to find Jay’s matching donor in the early 1990s. He was on his Birthright Israel trip in May 2019, when a Gift of Life representative came by and shared this presentation.
“I have a vivid memory of hearing Jay’s story and deciding to swab right then,” said Spencer. “The story is the thing that left a mark on me, more than 60,000 people took a blood test – before swabs were used for testing – to try and help a stranger. The way the donation process was explained made me want to donate, but I wasn’t expecting to match with anyone after learning how uncommon it is.”
Spencer was surprised to be called as a potential match only six months later, but it is likely a closer match was found for the patient, as he was not selected to donate.
“I still had Gift of Life’s number saved in my phone when I got the second match call two years later in August 2021, for a man in his 60s who was fighting myelodysplastic disorder,” said Spencer. “I was sleeping and when I saw who was calling, I was instantly wide awake. I jumped up and talked to the donor services coordinator, and I said anything I could do, I would do.”
Although no one in Spencer’s family has battled blood cancer, a close family friend survived leukemia through a marrow transplant and is now able to see her son graduate from college.
“I told my mom instantly, and she was so excited she said, ‘I’ll take the time off work and go with you, that’s a priority!’” said Spencer. “Gift of Life sent me another set of swabs to double check that I was the closest match, but then my recipient needed another round of treatment, so I didn’t hear much for several months.”
By February, the process was in motion again, but the date of collection was set for a day in late April, getting close to final exam times at most universities.
“Getting time off isn’t a problem when you’ve decided you’re willing to take a fail in any class that would tell you not to go donate marrow,” joked Spencer. “But there was no problem getting out of classes. One of my professor’s brothers had survived leukemia after a bone marrow transplant, and she was especially supportive, inviting me to office hours to make sure I knew what I should study for the final exam.”
Spencer was part of the Model United Nations Conference, spending a week in New York, then flew home to attend classes for two days, before going on to Florida for a week to donate stem cells. He was able to fly in directly from Southern California where he attends California State University – Channel Islands, and his mom, a resident of Northern California, flew in from San Francisco. There is no cost to donors for travel, transportation, or accomodations; these are arranged by Gift of Life, which also gives donors a meal stipend.
“The hotel where Gift of Life placed us was so nice, I almost felt badly,” said Spencer. “The pool was incredible, and we did so much while we were in Florida. I teach scuba diving and I have a couple students who live there, so I got to visit them. Mom and I went to the Kennedy Space Center and took the tour, which was great even though there was no launch that day.”
His day of donation was a bit of a welcome surprise to Spencer.
“I have donated red blood cells a number of times, and when they return the rest of the blood to you it’s a little cold and your fingers start to go numb,” he said. “That’s what I expected and was very happy when I found that the apheresis machines at Gift of Life rewarm your blood for the return, so you don’t get cold.”
He was also happy to have his mom as his companion, as they had a good time while he was donating.
“We put on a show called, “The Good Place” and watched it the entire time, and it just flew by,” he said. “When we got back to the hotel, mom said, ‘Do you mind if we just finish watching the show?’ so we did.”
Spencer also said he didn’t tell many friends he was donating until after it was scheduled.
“At first some people assumed it would be like a scene from a horror movie, then when I told them how donating actually works, I could tell they were much less impressed with me!” he joked. “However, two of my friends decided to join the registry, and one of my professors for an online class asked me to explain the entire process to the class, why I had to go to Florida, what I was doing there, how it worked, how I felt afterward, they wanted to know everything.”
“I like to put my money where my mouth is,” said Spencer. “When it comes to cancer, if donating bone marrow is what it takes to cure someone, then that’s what it takes. What if I can meet the person I donated to in a year? That would be a special thing to me. If we can help people live longer, then let’s do it. I want people to understand that getting on the registry is important, and donating is super easy.”
Spencer, 23, is a political science major at California State University – Channel Islands, in Ventura. He is originally from Sebastopol, Calif., and he enjoys teaching scuba diving and going on dives.