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Donating stem cells helps man overcome medical anxiety

Jan 17, 2023 by Gift of Life Donor Story

Isaac visited Israel in 2017 as part of the Birthright Israel program, a ten-day guided tour of the country available at no cost to any young Jewish adult from around the globe. Gift of Life is a regular presenter during the program, offering young people the opportunity to pay it forward by joining the registry, and possibly saving a life someday. 

“A representative came in to the meeting and described the whole bone marrow donation procedure, and the incredible feelings you get when you save a life,” said Isaac. “I decided to swab and join the registry. This was potentially a way of saving a life, and even though the chances are low, it was really inspiring to sign up for this opportunity – they described it as being almost heroic.” 

A little over four years later, Isaac’s phone rang with a call from Florida. 

“I was sitting stuck in traffic and even though it was an unknown number, I picked it up,” said Isaac. “Out of the blue they told me I was a match for a patient – a man in his 50s battling leukemia! I was so happy, I thought I would never get to donate and so it was really exciting to get this call.” 

Isaac told his wife Dev, who was also excited, but both of them were a little surprised to hear it would be a blood stem cell donation, not bone marrow.

“Bone marrow was more familiar to me, because I had already learned about that procedure,” said Isaac. “And some of my family members were also less familiar with stem cell donation and we had a lot of questions. Was stem cell transplantation new? Was it well-researched? Thankfully, the donor services coordinator patiently answered everything we asked about.” 

Isaac was relieved to learn that blood stem cell donation to treat blood cancer, sickle cell, and inherited immune disorders dates back to the mid-1980s, and today 90% of marrow transplants use stem cells, while the 10% still done via bone marrow are primarily for children. Stem cell donation is a nonsurgical outpatient procedure, similar to donating blood platelets, that typically takes four to six hours. Gift of Life was the first registry in the world to open an in-house collection center integrated within the registry. 

“The school I was working at was happy to give me time off to donate,” said Isaac. “They even asked me to do a video and write-up about the process to share with the students. Although I’ve changed jobs since then, my wife works there now so I’m hoping to complete that project for them.” 

Isaac and Dev flew to Florida where Gift of Life had arranged for accommodations at a hotel in Delray Beach.

“We were blown away by how gorgeous the hotel was, much nicer than we were expecting,” said Isaac. 

But Isaac faced another challenge: due to a serious problem with a dental procedure several years earlier, the use of needles could make him anxious. 

“I was hoping this stem cell donation would cure me of this fear, and for the most part it did,” he said. For the four days before stem cell collection, donors receive a shot of Neupogen each day to help mobilize the cells into the circulating blood for collection. The fifth and final shot is given just before donating. Some people find that Neupogen makes their bones ache, or may cause a headache. Isaac was in the former category, but found that going for walks in downtown Delray with his wife definitely eased the ache and was a great experience. 

“When I got the Neupogen shots in my arm I was actually fine,” said Isaac. “But it was a little challenging getting my veins to cooperate for the actual procedure.”  Fortunately, Gift of Life’s collection center nurses do this all day, every day, and are experts at making donors comfortable. 

“Everything started working perfectly and I was done in just two hours!” said Isaac, who expected a longer donation process. “When I just was settling in and the donation was getting going, they said, ‘You’re almost done.’ We stayed for a while until our lunches arrived. It was a big surprise to everyone that it went so quickly.” 

“This really benefitted me, I am able to get shots now with no problem and it helped build my confidence,” said Isaac. “I not only helped someone in need, I got over a fear that had been crippling me.” 

“It’s easy to be a donor, you get to save someone’s life and you also have a great time,” he said. “It may get overlooked, but we had an incredible time while we were there. Delray is gorgeous, we went to the beach, drove to the Miami Zoo for a day, and met up with some of our relatives in the area. You get the experience of donating, plus a vacation experience, and there’s no cost.” 

Isaac and Dev even went to one of Gift of Life’s galas and she decided to swab at the event, and joined the registry herself. 

Isaac also hopes for his recipient’s recovery and said, “I absolutely would love to meet him someday.” 

Isaac, 23, is married to Dev and they live in New York. He is a robotics engineer, and graduated from Vaughn College in Queens where he was active in the Robotics Club. He enjoys designing and building things, tinkering, 3-D printing, and also makes custom phone cases. 

Isaac's swab kit was sponsored by the OU-Israel Free Spirit and Birthright Israel Donor Circles.